The narrative for Stanford football has changed. It didn't occur overnight, and it certainly didn't happen without scrutiny, skepticism and a challenge to the preconceived notion that an institution couldn't be elite in academics and football.
The story wasn't back-to-back appearances in BCS bowl games or the 23-3 record the past two years. Rather, it was, "How can Stanford replace ____?" Toby Gerhart, Jim Harbaugh, Andrew Luck. Take your pick.
But the story has changed. Stanford has now been to three straight BCS bowl games, and the three-year record stands at 35-5. The question now is how far can the Cardinal go?
Of course, getting coach David Shaw to talk about long-term goals is like getting bears and salmon to strike a peace accord. Though his team may be primed for a run at the national championship, it's not something he's eager to discuss.
"I don't know anything about that," Shaw said. "I pointed out a year ago there were a few teams that everyone said were on the brink, and some of those ended 8-5 and 7-6."
Indeed, public opinion can be a fickle mistress, which is why he does his best to keep it out of his office and locker room.
"I like being relevant in the national conversation," he said. "That's great. But as far as expectations, I remind people all the time we weren't supposed to be as good without Toby. We weren't supposed to be as good without Jim. We weren't supposed to be as good without Andrew. And then Andrew's last year we were supposed to be great. And then as soon as Andrew left, we were supposed to be terrible. And then halfway through we were supposed to be OK. And then early in the season everyone thought we were terrible. And then at the end of the year we win the Rose Bowl."
(He pauses for his own laughter. Seriously.)
"Public opinion is like a wave. You can ride the wave or say, 'You know what, we're going to stay where we are and concentrate on our work.' I do love being mentioned nationally, as far as our university and football program is concerned, because we've earned that. But at the same time, it doesn't translate to anything but noise that doesn't help us win games."
Hope he has earplugs, because the noise is coming -- perhaps louder and more distracting than it's ever been in the history of the program. Stanford is expected to be a top-five team in the preseason polls, and Shaw will once again have a glaring spotlight pointed down on his team. The two-time Pac-12 coach of the year has constructed a team that is built to grind on both sides of the ball, and many feel Stanford is capable of challenging the SEC's stranglehold on the BCS championship.
With -- potentially -- 19 juniors and seniors starting at 22 positions, Stanford is a team that knows how to win close games. Last season, 10 of Stanford's games were decided by a touchdown or less. The Cardinal went 8-2 in those games -- including 2-1 in overtime games.
"A big chunk of the team is [mature]," Shaw said. "But there is also a group that hasn't been in those games. We'll be at a point early in the season when we're in some tough situations, and we're going to have somebody on the field that wasn't in those overtime games, that wasn't in some of those big victories. And we have to count on them."
Standing in Stanford's way is the always-present nine-game conference schedule -- a huge point of contention among conferences and something that is sure to be hotly debated as the sport moves into the playoff era.
The Cardinal are back loaded in 2013 with four straight rivalry games to close out the season: Oregon, USC, Cal and Notre Dame. Not to mention their own division, which includes the Ducks -- who may join the Cardinal in the preseason top five -- and Washington and Oregon State programs on the rise. Couple that with the UCLA and USC tie-in and the Cardinal have as daunting a schedule as any team in the country.
"Those rivalry games at the end of the year, it's great for TV, it's great for the conference. I think it's awesome," Shaw said. "Not all conferences do that. Some conferences play eight games and have late-season byes, which we're not allowed to do. They'll have late season nonconference games that are lesser opponents that they can sandwich in between big games."
He fired a not-so-subtle warning shot across the bow of the playoff selection committee-to-be.
"I don't have a problem with our schedule," he said. "I just think it would be better for all of us in college football -- particularly as we're going forward toward a four-team playoff -- I think it would make more sense if all of us were on the same schedule; if we're all on nine games or eight games. I hope that firms up as we get closer to that in order for it to truly be a level playing field and truly have all of the teams go through the same gauntlet during the season to get to that four-team playoff."
Should the Cardinal successfully navigate the 2013 schedule, the story won't be about who wasn't there -- but how Stanford got it done with those who were.