With its 63-13 rout of rival Cal and Oregon's loss at Arizona, No. 9 Stanford is back in the Pac-12 Championship game for a second consecutive season. And, just like last season, the Cardinal can spend the offseason ruing that the College Football Playoff doesn't begin until 2014.
If only the Cardinal could spread one of the nine touchdowns it scored against the Golden Bears Saturday to cover the six-point total margin of defeat against Utah and USC, they would be in position to play for the BCS Championship. That's Stanford's only road to the national title in the current system, but under the forthcoming playoff, it could play its way into one of four tournament berths.
Stanford's met certain criteria likely expected of a College Football Playoff participant. Its strength of schedule is second in the nation, according to Sagarin ratings, and the Cardinal boast high-profile wins over ranked opponents Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA.
It's also on course to win one of the Group of Five conference championships. Head coach David Shaw said in his postgame press conference that he learned of Oregon's loss from former Cardinal standout and current Seattle Seahawks star defensive back Richard Sherman, via GoStanford.com.
"He was on the sidelines, passed by me. Our game was in hand, that game was in hand," Shaw said. "Thought it was okay for him to share it with me."
There's something poetic in Shaw learning of his repeat divisional championship from one of the players responsible for helping Stanford's transition into a top-tier program. Rose Bowls were not goals past Cardinal teams realistically pursued.
Now, Stanford does so annually. The next logical step is the national championship, and the process of building to that is already started.
Shaw's faced with replacing a number of stars responsible for the two Pac-12 North championships, including linebacker Shayne Skov, who was everywhere on defense Saturday. But, Stanford also reloads in the first year of the College Football Playoff with such returners as wide receiver Ty Montgomery.
Montgomery, a junior, had a career day, catching five passes for 160 yards. Four went for touchdowns, and Montgomery rushed for a fifth score.
"We see this with Ty every game," Shaw said in his postgame press conference. "We're not the type of offense typically that's going to take a whole bunch of shots down the field, but we're going to take our measured and calculated shots."
"Calculated" encapsulates Stanford's style. It hasn't always paid dividends—Utah and USC are the two notable examples—and the BCS system renders a team's margin for error to almost nil.
While Stanford needs teams ranked ahead of it to lose to climb in the rankings, last year proved it can be done. The Cardinal were the fourth-highest ranked conference champion in the final BCS rankings, despite two losses.
Not that hypothetically making the Playoff before it exists is much of a consolation. Those two blemishes—like this year's, on the road and decided by single digits—left Stanford with an offseason of wondering "what if?"
Next year, the Cardinal won't have to wonder what a College Football Playoff would have meant to their season.