Loukas, Forcier pressing Pritchard for playing time

Sports magic has a shelf life. While exceptional performances become indelible memories among fans, they don't mean much inside the what-have-you-done-for-me-this-season pressure cooker of a Division I-A football team.

Take Stanford's Tavita Pritchard. No individual conjured more unexpected brilliance during the 2007 college football season than when he stepped in for ill starting quarterback T.C. Ostrander and guided the Cardinal -- a 41-point underdog -- to a mind-blowing 24-23 victory over No. 2 USC on Oct. 6.

Pritchard led Stanford to 17 points in the fourth quarter and kept the clutch, final drive alive in the waning moments by converting a fourth-and-20 completion and then calmly tossing the winning touchdown pass on fourth-and-10 with 49 seconds left.

"Two fourth downs in a row! That's something that goes down on ESPN Classic," Cardinal sophomore Alex Loukas said. "That's something I will remember for the rest of my life. Right after that catch, there were 90,000 fans [at the Los Angeles Coliseum] who were completely silent. Just seeing their faces was priceless."

Loukas loved the moment. He, however, wants Pritchard's job. So does junior Jason Forcier, who transferred from Michigan in 2007.

And one or the other will get every opportunity to relegate this Stanford hero to the bench in 2008.

Second-year coach Jim Harbaugh, who played the position for 15 seasons in the NFL, made it clear before spring practices began on Feb. 26 that the job was open, no matter that Pritchard started seven games and performed competently for an injury-riddled offense.

That means equal reps for each quarterback until one proves himself more equal than the others. That hasn't happened yet, and Harbaugh goes back and forth on whether he expects a firm pecking order to be established when the second spring session -- he's split spring drills into two "minicamps" -- ends on April 12.

"All three of them have distinguished themselves," Harbaugh said. "But there's not been any separation at this point."

It's not hard to find evidence that Pritchard, a junior, is being challenged. Consider the spring media guide. Typically, player bios try to turn lemons into lemonade, and strong negative commentary is verboten.

No so for Pritchard. According to Stanford's sports information department, after beating USC, Pritchard "was inconsistent for the remainder of the season and won just once more in his next six starts." He "finished the season by completing just 50% of his passes" and he threw "nine interceptions compared to just five touchdowns."

As for the quarterback competition, Pritchard "is expected to be pressed heavily by" Forcier and Loukas.

Golly. Talk about a no-spin zone.

Pritchard said the unusually negative tone has been pointed out to him multiple times. His response?

"Compared to what I would have said, they were nice to me," he said. "I'm my toughest critic. We wanted to win more games."

Ah, well played, young man. Pritchard obviously is aware that when Harbaugh talks about what he wants from his quarterback, whining and sensitivity aren't on the list. Harbaugh starts with quick wits and leadership before moving on to arm strength and athletic ability.

First, there is no lack of brains among the three. This is, after all, Stanford. But to support that assertion, consider how Forcier describes a project on water pollution in Mexico City that he and Pritchard are collaborating on for a communications class.

"It's more of a laissez-faire approach down there," he said "They can do anything they want with their waste, and a lot of that gets into the drinking water. Health costs down there are enormous, so it's really hurting the economy."

Brains, check.

As for athletic ability, that's also a given, as all three are adept as both passers and runners. Pritchard previously flirted with a position change to receiver and played special teams in 2006. Forcier rushed for 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns as a high school senior. Loukas rushed for 800 yards and 15 scores his senior year and was an elite tennis player until deciding to concentrate on football.

At 6-foot-4, Pritchard and Loukas are two inches taller than Forcier. Loukas owns the best arm of the three. Forcier was impressive running the scout team offense last year.

The scuttlebutt is it wouldn't be surprising if any of the three took the first snap against Oregon State on Aug. 28. Nor would it be a shock if more than one saw action early in the season.

"Coach Harbaugh made it very clear that all three of us are in the race," Forcier said. "Yes, (Harbaugh) acknowledged to the team that Tavita has experience, which is one thing he does have over us, but at the same time, he knows we're all capable of being a starting quarterback in the Pac-10."

For Pritchard, it's a matter of not becoming a one-hit wonder. That's why he appears to be embracing a prolonged competition few foresaw last October, when he spread fairy dust across the Coliseum.

"There's no room for comfort in football," he said. "Everything with football is a crisis situation. Anybody who sits back and goes through the motions is not getting better. I think it's the best thing for me to have to compete for the position."

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.