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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

College football top 25 countdown: No. 1 Stanford

Two-time defending BCS champion Alabama may be the obvious No. 1 pick, but a strong case can be made for Stanford. So, here it is.

August 27, 2013|Chris Dufresne
  • Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan returns for the Cardinal after going 5-0 as a starter in 2012.
Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan returns for the Cardinal after going… (Jae Hong / Associated Press )

Stanford has been No. 1 in invention, research, sunsets, marching bands (most despised) and several sports that are played in a pool.

But come on, seriously, football?

Think about it: Less than six years ago, Stanford was a 41-point underdog at USC and pulled off one of the greatest upsets in college football history.

How could Stanford get from there to here?

Maybe things happen for a reason. Those following this rankings countdown the last 25 days know Texas A&M was set to be No. 1 until it was revealed that quarterback Johnny Manziel allegedly signed the rights away in some hotel room in Miami.

The uncertainty of an ongoing NCAA investigation and Manziel's eligibility made the pick too risky.

It got me to thinking that maybe this was the year to elevate a team with the best chance of winning the national title without going before the Committee on Infractions.

Look at the rest of this season's top five:

No. 2 Alabama has cleaned up nicely under Coach Nick Saban but is still not too many years removed from the Mike Price hiring fiasco, head-coach infidelity (Mike DuBose) and major probation.

No. 3 Ohio State had a coach who lied to the NCAA and was ineligible to play in a bowl game as recently as last season.

No. 4 Oregon is on NCAA probation because its last coach was hit with a "failure to monitor" charge that chased him all the way to the Philadelphia Eagles. Oregon is lucky the NCAA was so busy with its own internal dysfunction that it let the Ducks off easy.

No. 5 Georgia under Coach Mark Richt has a rap sheet longer than Rapunzel's hair. The latest Bulldog to run afoul was kicker Marshall Morgan, arrested in July for BUI — boating under the influence. Morgan will sit out the opener against Clemson along with other suspended teammates.

Stanford isn't perfect — star linebacker Shayne Skov was arrested for DUI last year — but the Cardinal has had a grittier edge since former coach Jim Harbaugh took over in 2007.

The Cardinal's astounding rise is traceable to one man and his mind-set: Harbaugh.

It was somewhat lucky Harbaugh even got to the Farm. He was minding his own business coaching I-AA ball at the University of San Diego when Stanford fired Walt Harris.

Harris had followed the disastrous tenure of Buddy Teevens, and a Bay Area columnist called me for names of coaches he might float.

I had recently talked to Harbaugh for an advance story on the epic Ohio State-Michigan game of 2006. Harbaugh had no secretary. He picked up the phone after one ring.

He was hardly a hot commodity, and had been passed over for the San Diego State job in favor of Chuck Long.

"Harbaugh," I recall telling my colleague. "He's a Michigan man but went to Palo Alto High. Stanford could do worse."

My friend floated Harbaugh's name and the rest is history.

(I have been reminded many times that Bill Walsh also recommended Harbaugh, but who do you really think had more influence in the decision?)

Harbaugh brought a bare-knuckle fighter's intensity to the organization. As the story goes, he was asked during his interview how he was going to get good players with such tough academic standards. Harbaugh said he figured, in a country as big as America, he could probably rustle up 22 smart guys who could play football.

Eschewing gimmickry, Harbaugh built Stanford from the inside out. USC used to be the Pac-12 Conference football program most often compared to Southeastern Conference teams. Now it's Stanford.

The Cardinal is built to last too. It was easy to believe the program would recede into the palo altos when Harbaugh left to take the San Francisco 49ers job, but the promotion of Harbaugh assistant David Shaw turned out to be brilliant.

Last season, Stanford won the Rose Bowl for the first time in 41 years.

It might seem like sacrilege to compare Stanford to Alabama, until you actually do it. Although it is true Alabama has won two straight Bowl Championship Series titles, it's also true the Crimson Tide needed luck both seasons just to get to the game.

Alabama's record the last three years is 35-5. Stanford's record the last three years is 35-5.

Alabama has beaten Notre Dame once in that span. Stanford has beaten Notre Dame twice.

Alabama's quarterback, AJ McCarron, suffered only one defeat last season. Quarterback Kevin Hogan was undefeated, 5-0, as Stanford's starter.

"I think our quarterback is a budding superstar," Shaw said at Pac-12 media day.

What about the schedule?

By the time this season ends Alabama will have played five lower-division opponents the last four years compared with none for Stanford.

As for the tough SEC, Alabama during the regular season will play two teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 25, Texas A&M and Louisiana State.

Stanford plays five: UCLA, Oregon State, Oregon, USC and Notre Dame.

Stanford is built more like Alabama than any team outside, or inside, the SEC. The Cardinal's offensive line this season may be as good as Alabama's was in 2012.

Alabama's defense gave up only 10.9 points per game last season, but Stanford's gave up only 17.2. (Note: Two of Alabama's four shutouts came against Western Carolina and Western Kentucky.)

There are certainly no guarantees in college football. Stanford could make good on this hunch, or lose its opener to San Jose State. No team plays Stanford any tougher than the Spartans, who boast a potential first-round draft pick in quarterback David Fales.

What can't be calculated is the "been there" factor between Alabama and Stanford.

You know the Crimson Tide won't wilt. Or will it?

The last time Alabama was preseason No. 1, in 2010, the Crimson Tide finished with three losses.

You say, why Stanford? We say, why not?

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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