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Stanford's bounce-back season shows durability as national power

David Shaw and seventh-ranked Stanford will play No. 20 USC for the Pac-12 championship on Saturday. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When Kevin Anderson was in junior high, he regularly attended Stanford football games. It wasn't so much that he loved the Cardinal. It wasn't that his parents, who attended Oregon and Cal-Berkeley, were big fans, either.

To paraphrase "The Godfather," it was more business -- cheap entertainment -- than personal.

"My friend and I would go on Stub Hub and buy $3 tickets and they'd be like in the first row," Anderson said. "I remember one time they punted on third down. It was that bad. I remember the dark ages pretty well."

The dark ages of Stanford football were pretty much 2002 through 2008 -- losing seasons all -- with a 1-11 campaign in 2006 under Walt Harris being the low point. Even the dynamic lunacy of Jim Harbaugh produced more losing his first two years.

Stanford wasn't an easy sell on the recruiting trail, either. The educational opportunity sounded good to some, but elite recruits often offered a quizzical "Who?" when pursued by Stanford, particularly on the East Coast.

"I had to make sure I enunciated 'Stanford' because they thought I would say 'Samford.' Or I was talking about Stamford, Connecticut," recalls David Shaw, who was Harbaugh's offensive coordinator before becoming the Cardinal head coach in 2011.

This, of course, is a story previously told -- of Stanford's rise to unexpected national power, reaching four consecutive BCS bowl games under Harbaugh and then Shaw from 2010 to 2013. The Cardinal went from quaint to established, a deliberately paced old-school team that did its best work on the line of scrimmage when everyone else seemed to be spreading things out and working fast.

But then the Cardinal went 8-5 in 2014 and opened 2015 with an embarrassing 16-6 loss at Northwestern. Some questioned Shaw retaining play-calling duties. Some pointed out Shaw went 34-7 his first three seasons -- with Harbaugh's recruits! -- but was 8-7 since then, a contrived connection of three seasons that included the Rose Bowl defeat to Michigan State after the 2013 season and the 2015 season-opening loss to Northwestern. Some wondered if Stanford's 15 minutes of fame were over.

Perhaps some overreacted.

Shaw and No. 7 Stanford head into the Pac-12 championship game against No. 20 USC on Saturday at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, as the highest ranked Pac-12 team, the only conference squad with a shot at the College Football Playoff. Worries about the offense based on the struggles of 2015 and the opener at Northwestern proved unfounded. Stanford averaged 36.9 points this season, second only to Oregon. The Cardinal joined the Ducks as one of three conference teams that rushed for more yards than they passed for.

On a regular basis, college football gives us flashes in the pan. Heck, lowly Kansas went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl in 2007. Some teams rise up for brief periods and then falter, such as Washington State from 2001 to 2003 or West Virginia from 2005 to 2007. Joining the elite, perennial powers for a season or two because of a special coach or a small handful of special players is one thing. Maintaining that elite status is another.

Stanford's bounce-back in 2015, therefore, feels like a notable accomplishment. On the cusp of being written off as yesterday's warm-fuzzy news, the Cardinal refused to yield a spot on the red carpet.

When asked about sustaining success, Shaw immediately quibbled with the question's wording.

"The biggest challenge is to make sure no one is trying to sustain because you never stop building. You don't sit still," he said.

Anderson, who was born at Stanford Hospital and played football down the road at Palo Alto High School, signed in 2011, when Harbaugh used his success on the Farm to get hired by the San Francisco 49ers, and Shaw was promoted. It was fair to question at that point whether things would slowly erode, whether the Cardinal's success had been due almost entirely to Harbaugh's quirky wiring. There was some risk for Anderson in honoring his commitment to Stanford, though he said he was unwavering.

Five years and 52 wins later later, the fifth-year senior linebacker sees a culture that has maintained its tough-guy underpinnings while continuing to eyeball even higher aspirations.

"It's still the blue-collar, hard-nosed, show-up-to-work-every-day-with-your-hard-hat-on kind of program. Not too much has changed," he said. "Our success has helped in recruiting, so we are bringing in bigger names, flashier athletes that we didn't have before. But they pretty much come in and buy into the system. We do have a little bit more flash, but at the core, it's still the same, hard-working mentality."

The new flash is, for example, Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey, a true sophomore running back, and playmaking freshman receiver Bryce Love, as well as promising young talent in the secondary. Stanford ranks 11th in the nation and tops in the Pac-12 in recruiting, with commitments from seven members of ESPN.com's 300.

The enduring hard-working mentality is best manifested by a 51 percent conversion rate on third down, which is almost 5 percent better than any other Pac-12 team and ranks fifth in the nation. When Stanford needs 1 or 2 or 3 yards, it gets it.

After seven consecutive seasons of winning, Stanford is firmly established. Another positive from the program is that most observers don't view Shaw, a Stanford graduate and former receiver, as a job climber, a coach who's eager to parlay his success into a bigger paycheck, whether at some other college program with a 100,000-seat stadium and money to burn, or in the NFL.

Shaw no longer gets quizzical looks when recruiting. In fact, now elite players are extending hands, eager to introduce themselves.

"As far as the football program now, they know we're coming before we're there," Shaw said. "A lot of times they are looking for us."