It's hard to tell when you're in the good times. A football season is short, and it always seems that as soon as you realize you have something special, it's over. If I had asked you after the mauling of UCLA this year, "Is this the best Stanford team you've ever seen?" you would probably have said no way:
-This team looked more lost than they had at any time in 2014 during the week 1 loss to Northwestern.
-Sure, we beat USC, sure, but USC always chokes.
-Kevin Hogan looked great, but we've seen him have good stretches before.- it didn't mean he'd actually elevated his game for good.
-We all thought McCaffrey was something special, but no one else seemed to be noticing him, so we all figured he must just be pretty good.
In general, you probably would say that the offense seems good, but you can't rewrite the script of a team based on a couple games played. And when the script of a team has been mixed for years - a well-coached and physical defense paired with a relatively tame offense and a tendency to shoot itself in the foot - you learn not to make assumptions.
I know I thought all those things after the UCLA game. Up to that point, Stanford's offensive explosion was the most dubious on-field product; it always seemed like we were waiting for the dust to settle. But in walloping the likes of Arizona and UCLA, the offense could do no wrong. Kevin Hogan was Peyton Manning, McCaffrey was, well himself (we just didn't know what that meant yet). Even the play calling was exceptional, and I had never seen our offense come close to putting it all together like it did in that stretch.
And yet, I had no confidence that it could be maintained. Rewind a few short months and Stanford's 2014 offense could be described, most generously, as stagnant. Watching Stanford fail time and again in USC's red zone, in the rainy game at South Bend, in Stanford Stadium against Utah, for that matter, the Card made offensive football look hard. Watching that team made me realize just how many little things have to go right for an offensive play to be successful, and it made me wonder how any team could score points at all. Stanford finished the 2014 season 11th in offense in the Pac-12. Teams just don't jump up 10 places in their conference offense overnight. So even after witnessing McCaffrey's ascendance and Hogan's performances early in the season, I was expecting the wheels to come off in 2015.
I was sure I was about to be proven right on a rainy Halloween night in Pullman. Come halftime, Stanford was well on-track to lose. Wazzu was pulling out all the stops to key in on McCaffrey, and he was finally looking mortal, for once. It was too rainy to throw the ball with accuracy, and our track-record of sticking to the game-plan made me think we didn't have a shot. You know the rest: the coaching staff made the changes they needed to get us back in the game. They utilized Hogan as a physical runner- ran the zone read and forced Wazzu's defense to overextend themselves- Hogan gashed them for huge gains. I was convinced that this offense was real, that Shaw and Bloomgren had figured out how to maximize their potential. More importantly, I started believing in the dynamic nature of college football: that a team, even my team, could shift so suddenly from stagnant to supernatural. And it could stick. One missed Wazzu field goal would turn the tides, but I was already a believer. This offense was the real deal.
When it comes to college football, it's OK to believe what you see on the field. Stanford finished the season playing some of the hottest teams in the nation, and looking very, very good against them. McCaffrey became the type of superstar that gets a standing ovation from a full NFL stadium. Stanford made USC look absolutely lost on a neutral field in the Pac-12 Championship Game. We split the Oregon/Notre Dame games in two of the most entertaining games of any sport I've ever seen(when both of those teams played their best football of the season, I might add). And of course, we squashed the number 5 team in the country so badly that their fans, legislators, and (I assume) Carly Fiorina pretended they were offended by the Band's performance. You know, just so they could feel indignant about something.
Where did we leave the team? Stanford finished as the third highest ranked team in the country, with the best player in football returning, and one of the most dominating bowl wins I've ever seen freshly under its belt. College football turns over quick, so take that sentence in, and remember it during this offseason. Can this be considered the greatest season Stanford football has ever had? Harbaugh's 2010 Orange Bowl team would have something to say on the subject, but it's hard to read that bolded sentence and remember ending a season in a better place.
While we're here, let's reflect on and appreciate the success that Shaw, his coaching staff, and the players were able to achieve this season. Remind your USC friends about our last two contests, tell your co-workers that McCaffrey is still underrated, and be generally obnoxious about loving Stanford football to everyone around you. No matter what happens come Fall, it is a good time to be a Stanford fan.