Stanford turned in one of the great seasons in program history in 2010, a stunning transformation from a 1-11 team in 2006 to an 11-1, Discover Orange Bowl-bound squad only four years later.
And you have to credit coach Jim Harbaugh, whose "I vow I will attack this endeavor with enthusiasm unknown to mankind," line upon his hiring mostly drew skeptical, arched-eyebrows in December of 2006.
The Cardinal was dominant almost the entire season. It's only loss was at Oregon on Oct. 2, and the Ducks turned out to be pretty good. Only two wins were by fewer than 10 points: USC and Arizona State. Eight were by 23 or more. Three were shutouts.
The big story was third-year sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, a Heisman Trophy finalist who is likely going to be the first overall pick of this spring's NFL draft. The Cardinal offense ranked eighth in the nation, averaging 40.3 points per game, with a nice balance between the run (211 yards per game) and pass (256 yards). Beyond Luck, a critical key was one of the nation's best offensive lines, which yielded just five sacks on 356 pass plays.
But the biggest reason Stanford joined the nation's elite is the improved defense under first-year coordinator Vic Fangio. Last year, the Cardinal yielded 26.5 points and 403 yards per game. This year, the defense ranks among the nation's top-25, surrendering just 17.8 points (11th in the nation) and 325.8 yards per game (24th in the nation).
Offensive MVP: While Auburn's Cam Newton is going to win the Heisman Trophy, Luck is the nation's best quarterback. He's passed for 3,050 yards with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions, completing 70 percent of his passes. And he's an underrated athlete. He's rushed for 438 yards and three touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: Sophomore outside linebacker-defensive end Chase Thomas led the Cardinal with 11.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. He ranked second on the team with 66 overall tackles. He also had an interception and forced fumble.
Turning point: The humbling loss at Oregon could have left the Cardinal cold, and they didn't play well in their next two games, needing a late field goal to beat USC and allowing Washington State to score 21 points in the fourth quarter. But after that, Stanford mostly rolled through everybody. Only a road trip to Arizona State provided a challenge.
What’s next: Luck is almost certainly headed to the NFL. The bigger question is Harbaugh. Stanford has a new contract for him, but that doesn't mean he's going to stick around if he gets the right NFL offer. If he does opt to stay on the Farm, there is no reason the Cardinal won't remain a force as they head into Pac-12 North play. While the roster takes some hits, Harbaugh has recruited well and plenty of good players are slated to return in 2011.