Pasadena for New Year's
Stanford University is best known for its lofty academic stature, featuring among its alumni and faculty legions of internet moguls, Nobel laureates and Supreme Court justices.
This may not be the case much longer, though, as the Cardinal football team takes center stage en route to Pasadena for its third consecutive BCS bowl.
Despite stringent admissions standards upheld by few—if any—BCS schools, The Farm has built a successful football program with staying power. The team is currently thriving despite the departures of former coach Jim Harbaugh, Heisman runner-ups Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart, and 12 NFL draftees in last year's draft.
Stanford's record since 2009 is a gaudy 34-5, and the Cardinal, led by head coach David Shaw, are just getting started.
Turn the page to see why.
Stepfan Taylor: Duck-proof
For decades, Stanford featured a high-flying, pass-oriented offense, and with some exceptions (for example, during the Denny Green era in the 1990s), an often leaky defense.
Coach Harbaugh changed the culture and attitude of the team, and Coach Shaw has continued the squad's adherence to a power running attack and a punishing defense.
So, while the rest of the Pac-12 zigs, with no-huddle spread offenses, the Cardinal zags, with a pulverizing rushing attack that also enables long pass plays to Stanford's elite tight ends. The rest of the conference has seen and felt the fury of this offense for five years now and still has been unable to stop Stanford.
On defense, Stanford's front seven has been one of the nation's most dominant during the Harbaugh-Shaw era, with 56 sacks and an eye-popping 120 tackles for loss in 2012. The secondary also stepped up this fall, with sure tackling and game changing interceptions.
How has Stanford transformed from what many pundits viewed as a finesse program into one of the most physical and fearsome teams in the nation?
Hogan: Duck season in Nov., Badger season in January
The value of a Stanford degree, referred to by some of the program's followers as the 40-year decision, has always attracted talented high school athletes to The Farm.
Coach Harbaugh took things up a notch, highlighted by his recruiting of Andrew Luck. That alone would elevate any college football program. But Harbaugh also relentlessly recruited linemen, tight ends, full backs and linebackers. Tall, large, fast football players who wanted to play BCS football and also benefit from a Stanford education.
Not all of these recruits were rated as 4 or 5-star players in high school, but they were athletic enough for Stanford's power running game and a defense designed to stuff the run and rush the passer.
Sometimes, as in the case of Owen Marecic (now on the Cleveland Browns), a player ended up as both a fullback and linebacker. Marecic famously scored touchdowns at Notre Dame in 2010 on both offense and defense.
Coach Shaw has continued that recruiting strategy, and the Cardinal roster is now as deep as any in the nation. In 2011, Stanford had three of the nation's top tight ends, in Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo.
This season, Stanford has enjoyed a stockpile of talent at running back that enabled Coach Shaw the luxury of redshirting heralded freshman Barry Sanders.
Nowhere was the depth on offense better illustrated this season than at quarterback. A year ago, we speculated on who might replace the amazing Andrew Luck.
Turns out, the best guy for the job, Kevin Hogan, whose physicality, athleticism and instincts were on display at Oregon and twice against UCLA, wasn't even on our radar.
He is now.
Chase Thomas: 7.5 sacks, 14.5 TFL
Stanford's roster depth has not been limited to the offensive side of the ball.
On defense, the Cardinal have recruited and coached many great linebackers that 2011's breakout star and leading tackler, Jarek Lancaster, did not start in 2012 and was just one of eight linebackers in defensive coordinator Derek Mason's rotation.
The secondary, likewise, saw eight cornerbacks and safeties who saw major amounts of playing time this fall. Indeed, the Cardinal's biggest play this season might have been reserve nickel back Ronnie Harris's diving deflection of Matt Barkley's end zone pass in Stanford's "upset" of USC in September.
The Trojans were up 14-7 at the time and, had Harris not broken up the pass, that game and Stanford's season might have taken another direction.
What is truly frightening for the rest of the Pac-12 is that all but a handful of those top 16 defensive players are expected to return in 2013.
Oh, and the Cardinal get Oregon, UCLA and Cal at home, along with Washington and Notre Dame, the only two teams to beat Stanford this season.
Stanford has one of the smallest undergrad enrollments of any BCS school, with only about 7,000 students. Yet the Cardinal have a large and loyal fan base that continues to expand as the team sustains its national prominence.
Stanford averaged over 43,000 fans during each 2012 home game, including the Pac-12 title game, which kicked off on a rainy Friday afternoon earlier this month.
And, The Farm's fans travel well. Stanford boasted over 15,000 fans at the 2011 Orange Bowl, which was played on the other side of the continent from Palo Alto. Over 20,000 Stanford fans were at the 2012 Fiesta Bowl.
All indications point to nearly 40,000 Cardinal fans being at the Rose Bowl on January 1.
Pretty impressive for a small private school.
A Stanford Man
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Stanford's continued football prowess, head coach David Shaw signed a long-term contract extension earlier this week.
For the past 50 years, nearly all of Stanford's successful head coaches left The Farm for the NFL or for other college programs. These departed coaches include John Ralston, Bill Walsh, Denny Green, Ty Willingham and most recently, that Harbaugh guy.
David Shaw is different.
He is a Stanford man. Unlike all the others, he was a Stanford student, graduating with a degree in Sociology. He played four years of football for Stanford at wide receiver under Green and Walsh. He is committed to the program, and while commenting on the contract extension, told the San Jose Mercury News that he wants to be head coach "until his kids graduate" from The Farm.
His youngest child is two years old.
That puts Shaw in control for a while, which bodes very well for the Cardinal's future.