David Shaw is in uncharted territory.
In his first three seasons as the head coach at his alma mater, things just worked. Not everything -- there are some obvious examples to the contrary -- but Stanford’s two Pac-12 titles and 34-7 record came with relatively few setbacks. It was, and remains, easy to accept Shaw as one of the country's bright football minds.
We've learned a lot about the even-keeled, son of a coach since he took the reins from Jim Harbaugh, but we've yet to see him coach with the Cardinal's back against the wall like it is right now. That's part of the intrigue of Saturday's highly-anticipated game at No. 5 Oregon: How will Stanford (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) respond facing what could be interpreted as a return to mediocrity?
It's an interesting crossroads.
A win and the Cardinal will be right back to where they finished the past two seasons -- on top of the Pac-12 North. Having something tangible to play for isn't underrated. Shaw would receive a bulk of the credit for navigating a difficult stretch and turning things around in time for who has become Stanford's biggest rival.
A loss and Shaw would have a new season-high in that column with three regular-season games to play. The rest of the season would carry little significance -- at least compared to the past few years -- and it'd be fair to ponder Stanford's long-term trajectory.
The contrast in direction based on the outcome is more significant than any regular-season game Stanford has played in recent years.
After the most successful four-year stretch in school history, there was bound to be decline at some point. College football is just cyclical like that and Stanford, with its stringent admissions requirements, will never be immune to those natural ebbs and flows.
From a national perspective, all the pressure is on Oregon (7-1, 4-1). It's the Ducks that are still in the College Football Playoff picture. It's the Ducks with the Heisman Trophy favorite in quarterback Marcus Mariota and it's the Ducks fighting the perception that Stanford is their kryptonite.
The last two years, Stanford has controlled the line of scrimmage against Oregon and bullied its way to wins thanks to a reliable power running game and good defense. The defense remains -- in fact this defense might be Shaw's best -- but the offense no longer is equipped to execute the way it did with Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney running between the tackles.
Up through Stanford's 26-10 loss to Arizona State on Oct. 18, it appeared Shaw was set on sticking with what had worked the past few years, but in last week's 38-14 win against Oregon State that changed. It doesn't show up in the box score, but Stanford's willingness to get away from the power game and prioritize getting the ball in space outside the numbers was on full display.
"You have to be able to [win games] in different ways," Shaw said. "Because you’re not always the same team that you were last time."
The hindsight game is pointless, but it's hard not to think about how the Cardinal might have fared against USC or Notre Dame with its adjusted offensive approach. It's not a complete overhaul, which means Stanford will still rely on a lot of its principles against the Ducks: "Controlling the ball, running the ball, being efficient, being good on third down, scoring touchdowns in the red zone," Shaw said.
And, oh yeah, try to slow down a healthy Mariota, whom Shaw praised heavily.
"In the past couple years, he’s been the best player in college football and I really don’t think it’s been that close," Shaw said. "There have been a lot of guys that people have fallen in and out of love with, but this guy has been consistent."
So has Stanford.