Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in the nation, and Stanford may have the nation's best offensive line, but that's not why many believe the Cardinal to be the nation's best one-loss team.
It's the defense.
The improvement on that side of the ball from 2009 to 2010 is the difference from eight regular season wins and a Sun Bowl berth and potentially 11 wins and a Rose Bowl invitation.
In 2009, Stanford surrendered 26.5 points and 402.7 yards per game, numbers that ranked eighth and ninth in the Pac-10. The Cardinal had just eight interceptions, forced just 17 total turnovers and recorded just 21 sacks.
In 2010, Stanford is surrendering 19.5 ppg (21st in the nation) and 329.5 yards per game (27th in the nation), numbers that rank third and fourth in the conference. Through 11 games, the Cardinal has 14 interceptions, 24 total turnovers and has recorded 24 sacks.
And over the last four games, foes have averages just 11.3 points per game.
"The thing that has gotten them to where they are as a football team nationally has been the improvement of their defense," said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, whose team visits No. 6 Stanford on Saturday.
Part of the improvement is experience. Stanford welcomed back seven starters from last year, and nine of its 11 starters are juniors or seniors (four). Also, sophomore linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas started in 2009 and are budding stars.
Nose tackle Sione Fua has done a good job anchoring inside with his 306 pounds, which is critical in a 3-4 look. Said coach Jim Harbaugh, "He doesn't get a lot of the numbers. He knocks people back." Skov leads the unit with 7.6 tackles per game and his 4.5 sacks ranks second behind Thomas' five. Senior cornerback Richard Sherman has three interceptions and leads a substantially improved secondary.
Further, the Cardinal has stayed healthy, with just cornerback Johnson Bademosi missing more than two games due to injury.
But Harbaugh first points to the unit's one rookie: coordinator Vic Fangio.
"Our defensive coordinator deserves the credit when you talk about the job done statistically," Harbaugh said. "He's a stone-cold really good football coach."
Fangio spent nearly a quarter century-- 24 years -- in the NFL before arriving at Stanford, including 11 as a defensive coordinator for three different teams.
What he brought was a hybrid 3-4 that maximizes the skills of players and gives offenses a lot to think about. Riley notes you see both three- and four-man fronts, a variety of coverages and stunts and some schemes that run counter to what you'd expect on certain down-and-distances. Things are most exotic on third down.
"You see the kitchen sink now," Riley said. "You see every form of blitz and stunt. And they are sound when they do it. They get coverage down. It's hard to find open people."
Fun factoid for this game: Jim Harbaugh's son Jay, an Oregon State assistant, is in charge of signalling offensive plays for the Beavers. Says Jim Harbaugh, "In our family, it's the father-son bowl. I'm still stinging from Jay's bragging rights. And he didn't pull any punches in the offseason."
That's because the Beavers rolled up 463 yards in a 38-28 win last year in Corvallis that was actually a complete butt-kicking, considering the score was 31-7 at halftime.
It's hard to know what to expect from the Beavers. Two weeks ago, they gained just 261 total yards in a 31-14 home loss to Washington State, which ended the Cougars 16-game Pac-10 losing streak. A week later, they dominated USC, 36-7.
But the Beavers rank in the bottom of half of the conference in most offensive and defensive statistical categories. Stanford ranks in the top half in both.
It's not surprising that's the case on offense. But the chief reason the Cardinal is expected to beat the Beavers and post its first 11-win season in program history is the defense. And that is a bit surprising.