If you were putting together a list of the worst teams of the last decade, the 2006 Stanford Cardinal would have to reside somewhere near the top. Even by the somewhat indifferent standards in Palo Alto, this was a disaster: A school-record eleven losses, eight by at least three touchdowns, nine in which the offense failed to top 10 points. The Cardinal ranked at the bottom of the Pac-10 in every significant category, and among the bottom ten nationally in rushing offense, total offense, scoring offense, third down offense, third down defense, rushing defense, sacks, sacks allowed and turnover margin. After the season, Walt Harris was fired just two years into his tenure as head coach and construction began immediately to reduce capacity at Stanford Stadium by more than 35,000 seats. If Sports Illustrated was looking for its new "Futility U" that December, Stanford would have been one of the first places it looked.
That was the state of the program when Jim Harbaugh was hired, all of five years removed from the end of his playing career in the NFL and fresh from an obscure I-AA program (the University of San Diego) that doesn't award athletic scholarships. Four years later, the product on the field is a mirror image: The Cardinal have already racked up a school-record 11 wins going into tonight's Orange Bowl collision with Virginia Tech, eight of them by at least three touchdowns, ten in which the offense has scored at least 35 points. They rank first or second in the Pac-10 in almost every significant category, and among the top ten nationally in turnover margin, pass efficiency, sacks allowed and scoring offense; they're 11th in scoring defense, having finished off more shutouts (three) than any defense except Boise State's. If this generation has its own version of BIll Snyder, Miracle Worker, Harbaugh is it – only about twice as fast in making the miracle, and after tonight, probably four times as fast in moving on.
Wherever he goes from South Beach, virtually no one believes it will be back to Stanford, except to clean out his office. The stars are aligned too perfectly: The San Francisco 49ers openly courting Harbaugh from across the bay, while his alma mater is only slightly more subtly playing footsies under the table while it waits for the least tasteless moment to ditch Rich Rodriguez and rekindle the old flame. This is "Harbaugh to Kansas": Michigan and San Francisco both have Harbaugh's name written all over them – he'd be going "home" in one case, and wouldn't even have to move out of his current house in the other – as the next logical step up to the lucrative, headlining gig that will eventually define his career, and he may never have another shot at either of them.
Harbaugh, of course, will only talk about "the job I have now," which is to finish arguably the best season in Stanford history (at minimum, the best in 70 years) against Virginia Tech and its 11-game win streak, the longest in the country by any outfit not currently sitting with a '0' in the loss column. His pending departure isn't the only one that makes tonight a defining, high-water mark for the program he raised from the depths: With the uncertainty over Harbaugh's future, quarterback Andrew Luck has every reason to move on to his fate as the undisputed No. 1 pick in April's NFL Draft, along with ten senior starters, seven of whom joined Luck on the All-Pac-10 team.
That group started with guys who committed to jump into a black hole, and has steadily matured into one of the most physical, fundamentally sound outfits in the country; if it still included Mack truck running back Toby Gerhart, who gave up his senior season to rush for 322 yards and one touchdown with the Minnesota Vikings this fall, it might be them playing Auburn for the BCS championship a week from now as the Pac-10 champion, instead of the conference's more sustainable rags-to-riches story, Oregon.
As it stands, they have one final shot to punctuate their ascent on a national stage before the band splits up to pursue solo careers of varying success, and Stanford: The Powerhouse reverts to Stanford: The Smart Guys. There's always the distance chance that Harbaugh or Luck (or both, as unlikely as it seems) will come back in 2011 for one more go at a conference championship, a Rose Bowl or a shot at the BCS championship. So many strands are reaching their logical end points in the Orange Bowl that it's almost impossible to imagine them coming together in the same way again. By any existing standard since the outbreak of World War II, this season is as good as Stanford football gets. If it stumbles tonight on the top step, it looks like a very, very long time before it makes it back.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.