STANFORD, Calif. -- The first step in Stanford's national ascendancy was wearing blue shirts a mechanic would wear at the gas station. The message then-coach Jim Harbaugh was trying to deliver was simple: Sure, Stanford is one of the nation's elite universities, chock full of members of the privileged class. But the football team wanted to adopt a blue-collar mentality.
It was such an obsession for Harbaugh that he once congratulated a reporter for noticing the Cardinal seemed eager to sneak in a few shots after the whistle blew.
That was good enough for 8-5 in 2009, Year 3 under Harbaugh. It was the program's first winning record since 2001.
Over the next three years, however, Stanford won 35 games and lost five. The Cardinal were a missed chip-shot field goal from going 3-0 in BCS bowl games. Yet during that span the locker room theme was a lack of national respect. Players saw doubt from every angle: Could the program survive the loss of Toby Gerhart? Surely things are done now that Harbaugh is off to the NFL? A team simply can't replace Andrew Luck, can it?
Oh, and Stanford has an Oregon problem.
Doubts were addressed. Wins piled up. The Ducks were plucked in their own house last November.
Now it's the spring of 2013. Much to everyone's chagrin on the Farm, respect has arrived. Now just about everyone views Stanford as a top national title contender. Even SEC fans seem to tip their hats to the Cardinal's bruising brand of run-the-ball-and-play-tough-defense football.
Ah, but this is where the "C" word comes in. Stanford coach David Shaw knows his biggest enemy is complacency. His team taking winning for granted. His team feeling entitled. His team, well, acting like USC a year ago.
"You can't talk your way into winning games," Shaw said. "The circumstances that surround a game never matter. Only the game matters. We've done a good job as coaches here really beating that into the players' heads. The first question I asked guys before we started spring football was 'Are we collectively hungry?' You have to have that hunger."
Said linebacker Shayne Skov, "People have finally started to notice what we've been doing around here but we have to stick to the same plan we've had every single year, the same method. Guys are still hungry."
Hunger is good because talent is not the question. The Cardinal, which starts its second spring session April 1, welcomes back 16 starters from last year's Rose Bowl champions, including quarterback Kevin Hogan, who went 5-0 as the starter and was the quarterback of record in the clutch 17-14 overtime win at Oregon.
But returning starters doesn't tell the whole story, particularly on the offensive line, where four starters are back. Stanford has a troika of extremely talented sophomores who are fighting for starting jobs or at least playing time.
Andrus Peat -- 6-foot-7, 310 pounds and two years ago the nation's No. 1 prep offensive lineman -- is the likely starter at left tackle, which allows Morris Trophy winner David Yankey to move inside to his natural guard position. There are NFL teams that have weaker combinations on the left side of their line.
Meanwhile, Kyle Murphy is pushing Cameron Fleming at right tackle and is certain to see action at multiple positions and act as a sixth O-lineman when Stanford goes "big," as it is wont to do. Inside at guard, 317-pound Josh Garnett is in the mix, which could allow veterans Kevin Danser or Khalil Wilkes to take over at center.
However this crew stacks up, it's getting tested by the Pac-12's best defensive front seven. Suffice it to say, when Stanford goes full-go in practice, things get pretty salty.
Stanford's two biggest questions -- tight end and running back -- don't seem to worry many folks around the program. The return of Tyler Gaffney from pro baseball eased concern at running back, while there's young talent at tight end, not to mention a deeper crew at receiver.
Of course, Stanford is sharing its "national title contender" label with a familiar foe: Oregon. Winning the Pac-12's North Division might turn out to be nearly as difficult as winning the national title. But the Cardinal bucked its Oregon problem last year, and that victory still resonates, both as fact and symbol.
Every Stanford player or coach (or fan) quickly picks up the story when someone refers to the biggest play of that game, and perhaps of the college football season: Backup safety Devon Carrington slipping by De'Anthony Thomas to catch Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota from behind to prevent a long touchdown run in the first half.
"That play exemplified the heart and determination we are going to play with," Shaw said. "There also were multiple times we had a guy in space with Kenjon Barner and we tackled him. Last couple of years, we missed that tackle. You miss that tackle, and it's over."
Oregon could no longer simply outrun Stanford. And if Oregon can't outrun Stanford, no one can.
Stanford may still view itself as a blue-collar team, but it's moved into college football's penthouse. The question is no longer can it stay there. The new question is whether it can take the next -- and final -- step up.