Oregon vs. Stanford: The Best NCAA Football Rivalry You Don't Know About

Jeff BellCorrespondent INovember 6, 2013

The Cardinal celebrate on the Autzen Stadium field in 2012
The Cardinal celebrate on the Autzen Stadium field in 2012Steve Dykes/Getty Images

One of the marquee matchups of the 2013 college football season takes place Thursday evening as the Oregon Ducks head south to take on their North Division rivals, the Stanford Cardinal (9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN).

The game is significant nationally for obvious reasons. Just take a look at the current BCS standings, where you'll find both teams in the Top Five.

For No. 3 Oregon, the Cardinal appear to be the last major hurdle on the way to an undefeated regular season. A win would give the Ducks their best win to date, and it might shift the focus away from Florida State, a team riding high after big victories over Clemson and Miami.

As for No. 5 Stanford, beating Mark Helfrich's team would mean a comfortable spot atop the one-loss standings, where a trip to the national championship might be in the cards should two or three fortunate breaks go their way.

Stanford coach David Shaw leads his team out of the tunnel
Stanford coach David Shaw leads his team out of the tunnelStephen Lam/Getty Images

The winner of this one also takes a commanding lead in the Pac-12 North with just under a month left of football.

So, while the current importance of this game is as clear as a sunny summer day in Eugene, it's a rivalry that has more history than one might expect.

The series dates back 113 years to when Stanford beat Oregon 34-0 on Nov. 10, 1900. The Cardinal own the all-time lead 45-30-1 but have won just three times since 1997.

It's those three games, along with several notable wins by the Ducks, that have turned this into one of college football's most thrilling rivalries.

Let's travel back to Oct. 20, 2001, where a 6-0 Oregon squad led by quarterback Joey Harrington welcomed the Cardinal into Autzen Stadium. At the time, the national title game still seemed like a figment of the imagination, and a win would simply tighten the Ducks' lead in the conference.

Entering the fourth quarter, the home team led 42-28. Wide Receiver Keenan Howry had two touchdown grabs to go along with a punt return for a score, and running back Onterrio Smith had added on a 96-yard kick return to give the Ducks a 14-point lead.

Former Duck QB Joey Harrington knows all about the rivalry
Former Duck QB Joey Harrington knows all about the rivalryJeff Gross/Getty Images

Due to a wild combination of mistakes and mental errors, Stanford crawled back into the game and took a 49-42 lead before four straight incompletions by Harrington sealed the win for the Cardinal.

The Ducks went on to win the rest of their games but were left out of the national championship in favor of Nebraska. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com recently took a look at the controversy surrounding the BCS championship game in 2001, which still boils the blood of Duck fans everywhere.

Despite finishing No. 2 in both human polls, the Ducks were surpassed by the Cornhuskers in the BCS rankings, even though they failed to reach the Big 12 championship game due to their previous 62-36 loss to Colorado.

So, while Nebraska somehow ended up in Pasadena to play Miami (FL.) for all the marbles, Oregon ended up in the Fiesta Bowl to play Colorado, and the Ducks promptly walloped the Buffs 38-16. The fact that Harrington and Co. were left out of the title game still seems absurd, but it wouldn't have mattered if not for the Cardinal winning in Autzen.

Former Stanford QB Andrew Luck has also played a major role in the rivalry
Former Stanford QB Andrew Luck has also played a major role in the rivalryEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Fast forward to 2009, where the unranked Cardinal played host to No. 8 (BCS) Oregon after losing the previous seven meetings in the series. In perhaps the first signature performance of his career, quarterback Andrew Luck tossed dimes all afternoon and running back Toby Gerhart bullied and bruised his way to 223 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

The following season, it was the undefeated the No. 4 Ducks welcoming No. 9 Stanford to Eugene for what fans hoped would be a national showcase from a BCS title game-hopeful. Instead, the Cardinal raced out to a 21-3 lead after the first quarter. The Ducks, using an onside kick, clawed back into the game and trailed 31-24 at halftime. Both defenses looked porous and it seemed an inevitable shootout.

It was, but only for Chip Kelly's squad, which put up 28 straight en route to a 52-31 win. Running back LaMichael James led the offense with 257 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, and the Ducks announced themselves as title contenders.

One season later, the roles were reversed as an undefeated and fourth-ranked Stanford team led by Heisman-hopeful Andrew Luck took on the seventh-ranked Ducks at home in Palo Alto. James rushed for three touchdowns in a 53-30 win as Oregon once again solved the mighty Stanford defense. It would be the Cardinal's only loss of the season as the team went on to the Fiesta Bowl while the Ducks landed in the Rose Bowl.

Former Duck RB LaMichael James after beating Stanford in 2011
Former Duck RB LaMichael James after beating Stanford in 2011Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Of course, this brings us to last season and a game that remains fresh in the minds of college football fans everywhere. No. 2 Oregon was in cruise control on both sides of the ball heading toward the national championship until the 14th-ranked Cardinal stonewalled quarterback Marcus Mariota and Co., holding the Ducks to just 14 points in a 17-14 victory.

The Cardinal defense put on a legendary performance, holding running back Kenjon Barner to just 66 yards on 21 carries. It was also the last game in which Mariota threw an interception.

Much of the talk surrounding Thursday's matchup focuses on last year's contest, with many wondering whether Stanford has the right formula to slow down the Ducks offense, which is currently averaging more than 50 points per game.

In fact, former players still have fond memories of the performance, as evidenced by this tweet from Falcons linebacker Chase Thomas, who thought of his team's effort while watching Chip Kelly's Eagles tear apart the Washington Redskins defense earlier in the NFL season.

That game still haunts some of the current Duck players, like running back De'Anthony Thomas who commented earlier that he thinks his team should "at least put up 40" this time around.

That, of course, drew a laugh from injured Cardinal lineman Ben Gardner.

So, which is it? Was the 2012 game a fluke that the Ducks have learned from? Can Oregon revert back to its performances in 2010 and 2011 when it scored at will and had the Cardinal on their heels?

Or will defensive coordinator Derek Mason's unit once again solve the uptempo riddle and slow down the Ducks, giving Helfrich and staff their first loss of the season?

Those are just a few of the questions yet to be answered in the latest chapter of this fascinating college football rivalry.