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Cardinal playing for much more than just a bowl berth over last 3 games

Stanford has more than just a trip to Las Vegas or Levi's Stadium to think about over the season's final stretch

Steve Dykes

David Shaw won't say that Stanford might have a problem on its hands.

To the Cardinal coach, whose team is the only one in the country to compete in a BCS game in each of the past four years, it's a matter of what bowl his team will play in, not whether they will play in one.

"We put ourselves in this position and who knows what bowl game we have a chance to go to?'' Shaw told the Associated Press. ''It's hard to go through the matrix because you have no idea what other people are going to do. Our conference is still extremely turbulent, so who knows where we could finish up as far as what bowl game that will put us in? For us, we have football to play and we're still trying to play our best. And the challenge for us is still out there: to play our best complete game to date.''

Despite Shaw's optimism, the Cardinal has underwhelmed this year. The season's low point came two weeks ago, in a 45-16 shellacking in Autzen Stadium in which Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota ran all over a Stanford defense that had dominated his Ducks in each of the past two years. The Cardinal are currently 5-4 on the year with an in-conference record of 3-3, amounting to a failed season following a preseason number 11 ranking.

Now, Stanford could conceivably miss its first postseason since Jim Harbaugh's second year, when the Cardinal also started 5-4 but lost their last 3 games. After showing so much progress since then, a failure to even make any bowl appearance, yet alone one in the BCS, could have a problematic ripple effect.

In 2006, the year before Harbaugh arrived on The Farm, the Stanford recruiting class rated 54th in the country, according to Rivals.com, failing to lure any four- or five-star prospects to Palo Alto. Two years prior, the Cardinal recruiting class was 148th in the country. Yet, from 2009 through last year, a stretch in which the Cardinal qualified for bowls every year and made three BCS appearances, Stanford's class ranked in the top 25 in 5 out of 6 years. (The class ranked 64th in 2013, a year in which the young roster only had room for 12 recruits, including four 4-star prospects.) The ranking peaked at number 5 in the country in 2012, when the team brought in current stars Alex Carter, Aziz Shittu, Zach Hoffpauir, Michael Rector, Barry Sanders, and its entire current starting offensive line, including top 10 prospect Andrus Peat.

Most of these players are now upperclassmen, meaning that they are eligible for the NFL Draft. The whole o-line profiles as NFL prospects, with Peat likely a first round pick. Many of the Cardinal's defensive starters could leave for the pros as well, following a strong collective performance this year.

Stanford has dealt with key departures before. They replaced Andrew Luck with Kevin Hogan and went to two straight Rose Bowls, winning their first in 40 years. Jonathan Martin, David DeCastro and Coby Fleener were high draft picks that the team replaced. Yet, the team moved on from these players while the Cardinal dominated on the field. That 2012 recruiting class came the same year that Luck led the team to a second-straight BCS appearance. On-field success contributes to strong recruiting.

It's highly unlikely that a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 team can dominate on the national recruiting stage. This is why Stanford's next three games, in which the Cardinal can either gain some respect against two ranked teams and their archrival or miss their first bowl in six years, will be so critical.

The team's attempt to qualify for the postseason begins this Saturday at home against #25 Utah. Stanford's best chance at the sixth win necessary to qualify for the postseason will come against the Utes in the last game on The Farm this season. According to Vegas, the Cardinal are 7.5 point favorites, and they profile well against the Utes. The Cardinal's rush defense, which allows only 110.2 yards per game, good for 11th in the country, should bottle up Devontae Booker, Utah's best offensive weapon. This will force Travis Wilson to throw the ball, something he does not do very consistently, as the Utes rank 96th in passing offense in the FBS. If Peat and Co. can protect Kevin Hogan from the nation's number one pass-rush, featuring Nick Orchard (13.0 sacks, 2nd in the country) and Hunter Dimick (9.0, 8th in the nation), the Cardinal offense should be able to score enough to win a close contest.

After that, the team travels across the Bay to play Cal. The Golden Bears are essentially a more complete version of the Washington State Cougars team that the Cardinal beat handily earlier this year. Cal ranks 4th in passing offense compared to the Cougars' first place ranking, yet runs the ball better (148.1 yards per game against 43.6, the second-worst mark in the country) and forces more turnovers. Stanford should again be favored in this game. Yet, from breaking trombones to last-second field goals following onside kicks following premature field rushing, anything can happen in the Big Game.

Stanford's last game of the season comes against Brett Hundley and UCLA in Pasadena. The one area where the Cardinal defense has struggled this year is against mobile quarterbacks, as seen in Mariota's two touchdown runs and Everett Golson's key scrambles to beat the Cardinal. Hundley can run the rock himself, having picked up 259 yards on the ground over the past three weeks. More than likely, the Bruins will have everything to play for, only trailing Arizona State by one game in the Pac-12 South with the tiebreaker in hand. This game is amounting to be the Cardinal's toughest contest left on the slate, yet serves as the team's best chance for some late-season redemption following their struggles so fair.

Although there's no conference championship or playoff appearance on the line, Stanford's last three games still have plenty of meaning. The Cardinal have a good chance at getting that one last win to go to the postseason, and have a shot at reclaiming some national respect. How Stanford plays could decide not only the legacy of this season, but could also affect the future of the program.