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A Brief History of Stanford in the PAC-12 Championship Game

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Chronicling the Stanford Cardinal’s dominance on the PAC-12’s biggest stage.

Pac-12 Championship - Stanford v USC Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Welcome to a Brief History of Stanford in the PAC-12 Championship Game. This time it actually will be brief, as the Conference Championship Game is only seven years old. Despite this short window of time, the Stanford Cardinal have started a tradition of playing for the PAC-12 title.

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The PAC-12 didn’t have divisions or a conference championship game until 2011, when the PAC-10 expanded from 10 teams to 12 with the inclusion of Colorado and Utah. Before the inception of the PAC-12 Championship Game, Stanford had won 12 conference championships in the old PCC and PAC-8/10. The Cardinal’s most recent championship before the divisional era was in 1999, when Tyrone Willingham led 8-3 Stanford to their first Rose Bowl since 1972.

When the PAC-12 moved to the divisional alignment in 2011, Stanford was already one of the best teams in the conference, having undergone a major revival under Jim Harbaugh from 2007 to 2010. Harbaugh wouldn’t be joining the Cardinal in the new PAC-12, he left for the NFL to coach the nearby San Francisco 49ers, but his offensive coordinator stayed to maintain the gains Harbaugh had secured. Under David Shaw, Stanford would maintain a high level of play and be a fixture atop the North Division standings.

The best team in the new PAC-12 was initially the Oregon Ducks, who had run circles around Stanford in 2010 and would do so again in 2011 to secure the first ever North Division Championship. The initial PAC-12 Championship was merely a referendum of Oregon’s dominance, the Ducks comfortably bested UCLA. The Bruins didn’t even belong in the game, as the best team in the South that year was USC, but the Trojans were barred from playing in the postseason due to NCAA sanctions.

Pac-12 Championship - UCLA v Stanford
Redshirt Freshman Kevin Hogan led the Cardinal to victory in their first Championship Game appearance.

In 2012, Stanford finally solved their Oregon problem, beating the #1 ranked Ducks 17-14 in overtime at Autzen Stadium to attend the second ever PAC-12 Championship Game. The Cardinal were met by the #17 UCLA Bruins, who had just played Stanford the week before and seen all of Stanford’s tricks. The Cardinal managed to scrape by UCLA 27-24 at a drizzly Stanford Stadium to attend their first Rose Bowl since 2000.

Pac 12 Championship - Stanford v Arizona State
Running back Tyler Gaffney rushed for 133 yards and three touchdowns in the 2013 Championship.

Stanford’s 26-20 home victory over #2 Oregon in 2013 allowed the Cardinal the privilege of being the only team to attend consecutive PAC-12 Championship Games. Stanford played #11 Arizona State and blew out the Sun Devils 38-14 in Tempe. The Cardinal would attend the 100th Rose Bowl as a result of their win, making their second consecutive appearance at the Granddaddy of Them All for the first time since the 1971 and ’72 Rose Bowls. After 2013, the CG would move from campus sites to the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

2014 was Oregon’s last North Division championship. The Ducks blasted Stanford out of the water in the regular season and then destroyed #8 Arizona on the way to the inaugural College Football Playoff. In 2015, Stanford would reclaim the North throne despite losing to Oregon. The Cardinal beat the #24 USC Trojans 41-22 and attended the Rose Bowl for the third time in four years, equaling their best ever run under Pop Warner from 1924 to 1927.

Pac-12 Championship - Stanford v USC
Christian McCaffrey broke the all-time single-season all-purpose yardage record with 461 yards against USC in the 2015 CG.
Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The 2015 season was the last time Stanford and Oregon finished first and second in the North Division. The monopoly was broken by Washington and Washington State, who finished ahead of both the Ducks and Cardinal in 2016. With a comfortable win in the Apple Cup, the Huskies cruised into the PAC-12 Championship Game and had another comfortable win over Colorado. Washington attended the Peach Bowl, a semifinal game for the third College Football Playoff.

Now, in 2017, with Stanford’s Big Game win and Washington’s victory in the Apple Cup, Stanford has won the PAC-12 North yet again. The Cardinal will face USC at Levi’s Stadium in a rematch of the 2015 Championship Game and a rematch from earlier this season.

Here are some fun facts:

  • Stanford has now attended twice as many PAC-12 Championship Games (4) than any other team (Oregon, UCLA, and USC have two appearances each).
  • The Cardinal are 3-0 in the PAC-12 Championship Game.
  • Stanford has never gone more than one season without playing in the PAC-12 Championship Game since its inception.
  • Every Stanford appearance in the PAC-12 Championship has been a rematch from the regular season. The Cardinal won all of those regular season games until the 24-42 loss to USC this year.
  • The Cardinal have won the PAC-12 title at home, on the road (Sun Devil Stadium), and at Levi’s Stadium.
  • The PAC-12 North is 6-0 in the PAC-12 Championship Game.

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Let’s keep the streak alive! Make sure you watch the PAC-12 Championship Game this Friday night. Go Cardinal!