Stanford fans have had the good fortune to celebrate many monumental football moments over the last few years. 4 straight BCS Bowls. Consecutive Pac-12 Championships. A 50-point Big Game victory that practically wiped Cal off the face of the Earth. But in this football feast of the last four years, it’s important not to forget the one that started it all - the game that propelled the Card to their first top-5 ranking in a final BCS poll and showed that Stanford was ready to join the ranks of college football’s elite: the 2011 Discover Orange Bowl.
The Cardinal’s 42-12 victory down in Miami also holds a special place in my heart because it was the first Stanford football game that I ever watched. I had seen the SportsCenter highlights of the “Greatest Upset Ever” over USC in 2007 and clips of Toby Gerhart wreaking havoc in 2009, but living in the Eastern Time Zone made it hard to get a glimpse of a West Coast team that received virtually no national exposure.
At the time, I was extremely excited to watch the game. The Cardinal were a complete mystery to me and I—like the rest of the country—was curious to see how a school with more total Nobel Laureates (23) than football victories in the previous four seasons (18) would stack up against an established powerhouse in Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech Hokies. I was also eager to get a look at this guy named Andrew Luck. I had heard he was pretty good.
Stanford started out slow in the first quarter, but then dropped the hammer on the Hokies—and the entire college football landscape. Luck was even better than advertised—decisive, deceptively fast, and completing what I still think was the best throw of his career in the third quarter. However, Luck’s performance was far from my mind after the final whistle blew; I came away more impressed with the total team effort and level of talent that Stanford displayed for the world, astonished by watching a 6-foot-6, 250 pound tight end blow by corners and safeties with ease, in awe of a certifiably insane linebacker flying across the field with his face smeared in war paint. That was my introduction to Coby Fleener and Shayne Skov and the freakish level of talent all across the field. Stanford was not so much a flash in the pan behind an otherworldly quarterback as much as a thoroughly talented team.
At the time, I was shocked by the performance Stanford put on and—looking back at that 2010 team from the vantage point of 2014—it’s clear that almost no one at the time appreciated the unbelievable amount of talent on that roster. With the gift of hindsight, let’s break it down by position:
Quarterback: Not much to say here. Luck, a future number one overall draft pick, speaks for himself. In 2010, he built off of his redshirt freshman season to become a Heisman trophy finalist and would have been the number one overall pick in the NFL draft had he chose to leave Stanford at the conclusion of the season.
Tight end: Stanford also had four NFL tight ends on the roster in Fleener, Konrad Reuland, Zach Ertz, and an injured Levine Toilolo (a number that could increase to five if Ryan Hewitt makes a roster as a tight end this season). I don’t think there have been many other teams—if any—that have had four NFL tight ends on their roster.
Running back: Stepfan Taylor. Owen Marecic. Jeremy Stewart. Tyler Gaffney. Anthony Wilkerson. One of the deepest stables in the entire country. With so many weapons in the backfield, Stanford’s staple ground-and-pound offense had a seemingly unlimited amount of ammo to operate.
Receivers: The Card’s receiving corps also had NFL talent in Doug Baldwin, Chris Owusu, and Ryan and Griff Whalen (no relation). Though none of Stanford’s receivers were highly rated NFL prospects, they all managed to crack NFL rosters and formed a lethal offensive attack with Luck that helped put up 40.3 points per game that season.
Defense: You might have heard of this guy named Richard Sherman. While Sherman was nowhere near the player he would become in Seattle, the narrative that he was a horrendous college corner has been overblown. Sherman had 4 interceptions in 2010 while teaming up with junior defensive backs Michael Thomas, Delano Howell and Johnson Bademosi, all of whom are on NFL rosters today. Up front, the Cardinal boasted arguably their most fearsome unit in Skov, Marecic, Chase Thomas, and Thomas Keiser at linebacker along with Sione Fua at defensive tackle. It's also worth mentioning that youngsters Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro also got a little playing time in 2010.
Coaching staff: On top of NFL talent all over the field, the Cardinal also had perhaps their most talented coaching staff in 2010 with Jim Harbaugh at the helm. Behind him, the list is also long and distinguished: David Shaw, Greg Roman, Vic Fangio, Pep Hamilton, Derek Mason, Randy Hart and Lance Anderson. With the unbelievable amount of football knowledge on the sidelines, it should perhaps some as no surprise that Stanford came prepared to dominate Virginia Tech after a long layoff.
Clearly, the 2010 rendition of the Cardinal was extremely talented—you don’t explode to a 12-1 record and dominate in a BCS Bowl game without high caliber players and great coaching. But the number of productive NFL players that have emerged from the roster suggest that this Stanford team was on another level.
The real question is: Where do we rank the 2010 Stanford football squad amongst the greatest teams in the BCS era never to play for the national title?
This question is obviously very difficult to answer. The 2010 team may not even be Stanford’s best BCS Bowl team in the last four years given the offensive firepower of the 2011 team and the staunch defense of the 2012 and 2013 renditions of the Card. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore the team that posted the best record out of any of the last four Stanford units with an absurd amount of NFL talent.
So who are the other contenders in the running for the best college football team never to play for a national title? The 2000 Miami Hurricanes—who finished 11-1 and won the Sugar Bowl—immediately come to mind. With a roster that featured Ed Reed, Andre Johnson, Clinton Portis, Reggie Wayne, Jeremy Shockey, and many, many others (seriously, look it up—it’s probably the most frightening lineup ever assembled).
The 2004 Auburn Tigers are also a natural choice to include in this discussion. Behind quarterback Jason Campbell and an unstoppable running back tandem in Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, the Tigers finished 13-0, but ended up as the odd man out in the BCS rankings as USC and Oklahoma tangoed for the crystal ball.
And there are many other teams deserving to be in this discussion. A number of Boise State teams in the 2000s, USC in 2008, and Oregon in 2012 stand out amongst others. Ultimately, I think the Stanford in 2010 deserves to be on this list as one of the most talented teams of the last decade-plus. If not for their lone blemish at Oregon—when they jumped out to a 21-3 lead—the Cardinal might have played Cam Newton and Auburn for the national title. They were that close to knocking on the door and should be remembered that way.
While they certainly did not have the number of first round draft picks as Miami or Auburn, the last couple NFL seasons have shown that the Cardinal had a number of absolute studs who—much like the team—were overlooked or undervalued. And these NFL players don’t even include future Stanford stars like Murphy, Ed Reynolds, or David Yankey, who did not play major roles in the Orange Bowl run.
Ultimately, I think the 2010 Card could compete against any elite team in the BCS era and should be remembered as one of the best teams never to play for the national title. While it’s impossible to say whether or not Stanford could best the 2000 Hurricanes or the 2004 Tigers, thanks to the lethal Andrew Luck-led offense, a talented defense and one of the deepest brain trusts ever assembled, the 2010 Cardinal look capable of lining up and competing against any team from the BCS era. The continued success of the Jim Harbaugh coaching tree and the strong presence of the team in the NFL validate this claim.
Fans across the country are now beginning to internalize the magnitude of Stanford’s continued success in the last four years, but the 2010 season—the one that started the run—remains under the radar. I propose we take the time to make sure that one of the most talented, well-coached teams of the BCS era gets its due and is remembered for launching one of the most successful four years in all of college football. It would be a shame for that roster and that season to get anything less than the tremendous credit they deserve.