Stanford vs. UCLA: Cardinal Will Take Round One to Set Up Pac-12 Rematch

Alex BallentineFeatured ColumnistNovember 24, 2012

EUGENE, OR - NOVEMBER 17: Running back Stepfan Taylor #33 of the Stanford Cardinal drags linebacker Michael Clay #46 of the Oregon Ducks as he runs with the ball during the first quarter of the game at Autzen Stadium on November 17, 2012 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The Stanford Cardinal are in prime position to earn a berth in the Pac-12 championship game. After upsetting the Oregon Ducks last week, the Cardinal are a win over the UCLA Bruins away from locking up a shot at the conference championship.

If they pull it off, they'll be facing a familiar opponent for the right to play in the Rose Bowl—the UCLA Bruins.

Yes, we could see the Cardinal and Bruins play each other in back-to-back games to determine the winner of the conference in what has been a topsy-turvy season out west.

At the beginning of the season, most anyone would have said that Oregon and USC would have sewn up spots in the championship game long ago. After Stanford beat Oregon last week and UCLA handled USC, there's no doubt that both of these teams deserve to play for the Pac-12 title.

UCLA has come out of nowhere to emerge as the winner of the Pac-12 South division. The unheralded Bruins started the season at 4-2 and appeared to be a middle of the road team after getting blown out 43-17 against lowly California.

The Bruins would prove that performance was an anomaly, as they ripped off five straight wins to get to the point they are now. After that streak, there's no questioning it—the Bruins are a great team.

However, Stanford may be the most underrated team in the country.

The Cardinal weren't expected to do much one year removed from the Andrew Luck era. After losing their stud quarterback to the NFL draft, many assumed that Cardinal would need some time to reload for another shot at the conference title.

Instead, David Shaw showed that Stanford is here to stay as a Pac-12 threat for years to come.

The Cardinal have won five straight games, including back-to-back wins over Oregon State and Oregon. Looking at the two losses Stanford has suffered, an argument could be made they could just as easily be undefeated right now.

Stanford was stunned early on in a Thursday night game on the road against Washington. In that game, the Cardinal played their worst football of the season and still had a shot to win it in the end. Given the poor play of Josh Nunes in that game, one has to wonder what the result would have been if current starter Kevin Hogan had played.

Then there's the loss to Notre Dame. The Cardinal lost to the current No. 1 team in the country by the slimmest of margins. There are probably still some Cardinal fans shaking their fists at the sky in South Bend over the controversial call that Stepfan Taylor didn't get in the end zone to tie the game.

A less resilient team may have packed their bags and called it a season. The Cardinals have shown a lot of resolve by righting the ship and getting to this point.

With UCLA's berth in the conference title game already sewed up, it can afford to play a little more conservatively and hold things back for the title game.

The Cardinal, facing elimination, don't have that luxury. Expect Stanford to strike first with more on the line.

Anything can happen in the rematch, but Stanford should be the more motivated team on Saturday.