Best case-worst case: Stanford

Seventh in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.

Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction.

Up next: Stanford

Hard to say when it really started. "It" being the notion that Stanford was a national title contender. And a team to be feared.

The blowout win over Sacramento State didn't exactly reverberate with the college football nation. Nor did three running backs combining for 225 yards and doing their best Toby Gerhart imitation at UCLA earn top billing on SportsCenter.

A 24-3 win over Wake Forest pushes the Cardinal to 14th in the nation. A 31-17 win at Notre Dame lands them just outside the top-10. Still, things were mostly quiet outside the Farm.

"Things are mostly quiet here," says coach Jim Harbaugh. "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. That's what Stanford football is about. Not noise."

Oh, but there are whispers.

"What about the Stanford Cardinal?" Kirk Herbstreit asks on College GameDay. "Their quarterback may end up the No. 1 pick in this year's NFL draft. They may have the best offensive line in the nation. They're averaging over 200 yards rushing per game, despite the departure of Toby Gerhart. And, finally, they've got a defense to match."

Replies Chris Fowler, "Let's see what they do at No. 5 Oregon."

What they do is Luck throws for three touchdowns and the Cardinal rolls up 485 yards of offense in a 31-24 win.

The Cardinal climbs to No. 7 in the national polls. Yet some are still not sold.

"I'm still not sold," says Lou Holtz. "Let's see what they do against Southern Cal."

What they do is stink up the joint. For three quarters. But Luck completes 10 of 12 passes for 148 yards and two TDs in the fourth quarter, including a 28-yard seeing-eye bullet that finds Ryan Whalen for the winning score with 15 seconds left.

"That's two unbeaten, top-10 teams in two weekends," Rece Davis says to Holtz. "Are you sold?"

"Yep," says Holtz.

After a bye week, Stanford easily dispatches Washington State. It then heads to Washington. Scouts from every NFL team are on hand to watch Luck's showdown with Jake Locker. Luck and Locker each account for three TDs apiece, but the Huskies get the ball last, and that proves the difference. Stanford suffers its first defeat. When Oregon wins at USC that night, it looks like the Cardinal and the Ducks will engage in a race to the Rose Bowl finish.

After wins over Arizona and Arizona State, the fifth-ranked Cardinal heads to Berkeley for the Big Game, with California eagerly embracing the role of spoiler. Stanford leads 28-14 in the third, but a pair of TD passes from Kevin Riley ties the count with two minutes left. Then Jeff Tedford shocks everyone in the stadium with an on-side kick. The Bears recover. Riley expertly leads his offense to the Stanford 10-yard line, and Giorgio Tavecchio lines up for the chip-shot winner.

Stanford blocks the kick. Chris Owusu picks up the ball and runs it the other way for the game-winning score. "D'oh," is the one-word column on California Golden Blogs that night.

After beating Oregon State 28-24, Stanford finishes fourth in the BCS standings. It's consolation prize is the Rose Bowl opposite No. 3 Ohio State, which is one of three unbeaten teams. The mighty Buckeyes, Rose Bowl champs the year before and ranked No. 1 in both human polls, aren't happy they got computered out of the national title game.

"We're going to make a statement," says quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

Before taking the field, Harbaugh gathers his team.

"From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered," he says. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."

Whispers Whalen to center Chase Beeler, "Is it Saint Crispin's Day?" Replies Beeler, "Forget the Rose Bowl. We're at Agincourt!"

Stanford wins 21-17, securing its first Rose Bowl victory since 1971 after stopping the Buckeyes on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line.

The 12-1 Cardinal finishes ranked No. 2 behind Alabama. Harbaugh announces he's signed a lifetime contract.

"Yes, I'm coming back," Luck tells reporters a week later. "We have unfinished business."

Worst case

A switch to a 3-4 defense evidently isn't the answer for Stanford's defensive woes. That's made clear when UCLA and quarterback Kevin Prince roll up 468 yards in a 35-30 win.

Despite beating Wake Forest and Notre Dame, it becomes clear that Stanford has to score a lot of points to win. Its defense still lacks top-end athleticism, which is abundantly evident during a 45-30 loss at Oregon. Moreover, a backfield-by-committee approach does not a Toby Gerhart make.

That puts pressure on quarterback Andrew Luck to make plays downfield against defenses scheming to stop him. USC does just that in a 31-20 win, sacking Luck five times.

Washington State doesn't have the talent to follow the plan. Luck out-duels Washington's Jake Locker in Husky Stadium and leads a comeback win over Arizona. But, in the first quarter at Arizona State, Luck feels a tweak in his hamstring as he tries to elude Vontaze Burfict. With Luck out, the Sun Devils record the upset.

A Big Game in Berkeley without Luck is not a good thing for Stanford. California rolls 38-17. Luck again isn't available for the finale vs. Oregon State, and the Beavers drop the Cardinal to 6-6 on the year.

Luck returns to lead the Cardinal to a victory over Temple in the Eagle Bank Bowl, but it's hardly a day of celebration when Harbaugh announces he's headed to Michigan.

That's big news over at Rose Bowl practices for both California and Ohio State.

A week after Cal's victory, Luck announces he's entering the NFL draft.

"I'm sure the program will do great things during the second tenure of Walt Harris," Luck says.