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January 2, 2011

Orange Bowl: Stanford vs. Virginia Tech

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The stories of Stanford's season of futility four years ago aren't quite passed down like folklore, but everyone seems to have an idea of what happened.

The Cardinal went 1-11 in 2006, the year before Stanford hired Jim Harbaugh. Players were used to losing. Some were content to live up to the low standards expected by those outside the program, and others were simply bad teammates.

ORANGE BOWL

Stanford (11-1) vs. Virginia Tech (11-2)
WHEN: Jan. 3, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Sun Life Stadium, Miami
TV: ESPN (Mike Tirico will do play-by-play, with Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski as the analysts).
THE LINE: Stanford by 3.5
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Stanford 3-1, Virginia Tech 7-1.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Stanford 64th, Virginia Tech 55th.
BCS RANKINGS: Stanford 4th, Virginia Tech 13th.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Big 12.
COACHES: Stanford - Jim Harbaugh (0-1 in bowls); Virginia Tech - Frank Beamer (8-9 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: The way both teams see it, they are only a few of plays from being undefeated. Stanford played one bad half this season, against Oregon; the Cardinal led 31-24 at halftime before giving up 28 unanswered points to the Ducks. Virginia Tech failed to convert a late third down against Boise State, which snowballed into an inexplicable loss five days later to James Madison. Outside of a couple of blemishes, Stanford and Virginia Tech have been dominant for most of the season thanks to two of the nation's top quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Tyrod Taylor.
KEY STATS: A turnover could be the difference since both teams have dominated turnover margin. Virginia Tech leads the nation (plus-18), and Stanford is third (plus-14). The Hokies have been even or positive in turnover margin in every game but one (minus-three against James Madison). Stanford was plus-eight in turnover margin in its past two games and is plus-12 in the past six.
"Not many pleasant stories, that's for sure," sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck said. "It wasn't too fun for them. Losing is never fun. I don't want to devalue the players or coaches from the other system. ... But I know it wasn't too fun."

Thanks to Harbaugh, Luck and others, Stanford football is more fun these days. The Cardinal (11-1) finished the season ranked fourth in the BCS standings, with one bad half at Oregon preventing Stanford from being undefeated. Luck was the Heisman runner-up -- former teammate Toby Gerhart finished second in the voting last season -- and Harbaugh might be the hottest coach in the nation.

Stanford has a chance to cap one of the best seasons in school history with a win in Monday night's Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech. After Monday, though, Stanford's dream season ends, and Cardinal fans can be forgiven for asking how long this can last.

Before going to the Sun Bowl last season, the Cardinal endured seven consecutive losing seasons under three coaches. It's a place no one associated with the Cardinal is eager to revisit, though a drop-off is a legitimate fear.

Because he is a third-year sophomore, Luck -- Stanford's best quarterback since John Elway -- is eligible to declare for the NFL draft, where he could be the first overall pick. Harbaugh -- whose brother, John, is coach of the Baltimore Ravens -- will be a hot name for open NFL jobs. His name already has been mentioned in conjunction with Michigan, his alma mater, should that job come open.

Neither Harbaugh nor Luck has said definitively they will be back at Stanford next season. Neither has indicated he will leave.

"I've tried not to think about my future until after this football game," Luck said. "I don't want it to get in the way of the team, of our chances in the Orange Bowl. I think if I start thinking about it too much, it'll be a detriment and my head will be in the wrong place."

Harbaugh has been even less committal about any career moves.

"I just love to compete and I like challenges," Harbaugh told the New York Times when asked about his future.

Almost all of the credit -- from players, anyway -- goes to Harbaugh for turning Stanford into an Orange Bowl team from a Pac-10 bottom-feeder.

Stanford last played in a major bowl after the 1999 season, when Tyrone Willingham led the Cardinal to the Rose Bowl. But that team went 8-4 in a weakened Pac-10 and finished the season unranked. Willingham left for Notre Dame after a 9-3 record in 2001, and Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris combined to go 16-40 in the next five seasons. The damage was more than just the overall record.

"They still had guys on the team that weren't accustomed to winning and weren't bought-in and didn't believe in the team," said linebacker Chase Thomas, who arrived in Harbaugh's second season. "They weren't some of the best teammates. Each recruiting class that Harbaugh brings in helps add onto the belief of winning. He's definitely instilled this mindset that it's not acceptable to lose."

Harbaugh has had a no-nonsense, full-speed-ahead attitude from the beginning.

In 2007, he claimed he had heard Pete Carroll would leave USC after one more year. Carroll took exception in the media, and Harbaugh countered by saying "we bow to no man. We bow to no program here at Stanford University." Although Harbaugh's statement may have been laughable at the time, Stanford lived up to it by defeating USC in Los Angeles that season and also have beaten the Trojans twice since.

Harbaugh's bravado rubbed off on the team in grueling practices, which linebacker Shayne Skov has called "brutal."

"It wasn't easy," Skov said. "It wasn't as if someone snapped their fingers and things changed. They laid the foundation and put in the work since Day One. Through all that hard work, we began to believe in each other and take that intensity to the field."

The momentum has carried into recruiting. Stanford had the eighth-ranked class in the Pac-10 in 2008, even though that class included Luck. The signing class ranked third in the Pac-10 and 20th nationally in 2009. By late October, Stanford already had 22 commitments for the 2011 signing class.

To junior linebacker Thomas Keiser, the academic standards can be more of a lure for recruits rather than a barrier. Recruiting and winning at the nation's top academic institutions always will be difficult, but Stanford has a far better tradition and recruiting base than Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Duke.

"If you can pull those guys every year, you have the opportunity to have a successful year," Keiser said. "Coach Harbaugh has done a good job of cultivating that and bringing out the competitiveness and winning nature in us. He's been invaluable for that. In the years to come, we'll just have to see."

Of course, that's what makes Harbaugh an attractive coaching candidate for just about everyone else.

Harbaugh, a quarterback coach for the Oakland Raiders from 2002-03, reportedly interviewed for the New York Jets' job when they hired Rex Ryan. He also was rumored to be a candidate for vacancies with the Raiders and the Buffalo Bills. With the San Francisco 49ers firing Mike Singletary earlier this month, the speculation has begun anew.

Then there's Michigan, where Harbaugh played quarterback. Wolverines athletic director Dave Brandon had said he will evaluate Rich Rodriguez after the season, which ended with an embarrassing 52-14 loss to Mississippi State in Saturday's Gator Bowl. Rodriguez's three-year tenure has included only one bowl, an overall losing record and NCAA probation.

If a move is in Harbaugh's future, it would be consistent with his career arc to date.

"One thing Jim has done different than a lot of ex-players that want to get into the coaching profession, Jim knew that he needed to develop as a coach just as he needed to develop as a player," said first-year Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who arrived with the Cardinal after 24 seasons as an NFL assistant. "When he was done playing, he became a quality-control guy with the Raiders, took a [Division] I-AA job at San Diego, and then worked his way to Stanford."

When Skov, a sophomore, committed to Stanford, he remembered hearing speculation that Harbaugh wouldn't be in Palo Alto for the long haul. But Harbaugh's future has been the subject of so much debate, players are numb to the topic.

But whether or not change is coming, Stanford is enjoying its time at the top.

"You have to play this game in the now," Skov said. "You can't let future or past doubts or speculation affect you."

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Stanford rush offense vs. Virginia Tech rush defense: Even without Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart, Stanford put up some of the best rushing numbers in school history. The Cardinal have run for 2,532 yards, the second-highest total in school history (2009 was the best). Sophomore Stepfan Taylor led the way with 1,023 yards and 15 touchdowns. In addition to being one of the nation's best passers, Andrew Luck is an effective (and sometimes punishing) runner. He has rushed for 439 yards and averages 8.6 yards per carry. The line is physical and nasty, led by C Chase Beeler and Gs David DeCastro and Andrew Phillips. Virginia Tech had one of its worst performances in recent seasons against the run, allowing 148.9 rushing yards per game. The Hokies' linebackers must play well if Tech hopes to slow the Cardinal. Edge: Stanford.

Stanford pass offense vs. Virginia Tech pass defense: Luck will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in Stanford history, and this is a school that has produced a staggering number of NFL quarterbacks. He has completed 70.5 percent of his passes, for 3,051 yards and 28 TDs, with seven picks. He has thrown at least two TD passes in nine games. The Cardinal run a pro set, and Luck does a good job of spreading the ball around. Six receivers have at least 200 yards, and 10 have caught a touchdown pass. Despite its deficiencies against the run, Virginia Tech is stingy against the pass. CB Jayron Hosley is tied for the national lead with eight interceptions, and SS Davon Morgan and CB Rashad Carmichael have combined for nine picks. The Hokies are second nationally with 22 picks. The Hokies also have 33 sacks, but the Cardinal have allowed a nation's low five sacks. Edge: Stanford.

Virginia Tech rush offense vs. Stanford rush defense: The Hokies came into the season touting their running back depth. That depth has come in handy in a big way. Ryan Williams' follow-up to his fantastic freshman season stalled because of a hamstring injury that caused him to miss four games. Indeed, his health for the Orange Bowl is a question that may not be answered until kickoff. In his absence, Darren Evans led the Hokies in rushing despite a slow start. David Wilson has been suspended for the first quarter because of a team-imposed suspension, but he will see time. QB Tyrod Taylor has rushed for 637 yards and five TDs, and had two 100-yard games. Since allowing Oregon to rush for 388 yards and four touchdowns on Oct. 2, Stanford has allowed just 95.7 rushing yards per game over the final seven. Stanford's run defense is anchored by senior T Sione Fua, and the linebackers are active and physical. Edge: Stanford.

Virginia Tech pass offense vs. Stanford pass defense: Taylor wraps up his career as one of the top quarterbacks in Tech history. He's a dual threat who has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country the past two seasons. Taylor has thrown for 2,521 yards and 23 TDs, with just four picks. Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale are big-play threats. A major reason for Stanford's overall defensive turnaround this season has been its play against the pass. Coordinator Vic Fangio brings a variety of looks and formations that enabled the Cardinal to intercept 17 passes this season. Despite Taylor's mobility, the Hokies have allowed 26 sacks this season. Stanford has 27 sacks, with OLB Chase Thomas leading the way with 7.5. Edge: Virginia Tech.

Stanford special teams vs. Virginia Tech special teams: Stanford K Nate Whitaker is 17-of-19 this season, including 4-of-5 from beyond 40 yards. His longest kick is from 46. He also has had 27 touchbacks on kickoffs. Stanford only has punted 29 times, and P Daniel Zychlinski averages 41.8 yards per boot. Drew Terrell (punts) and Chris Owusu (kickoffs) are solid return men, but the coverage teams have been somewhat suspect, especially against punts. Virginia Tech's reputation for blocking kicks means opponents put extra planning into special teams. The Hokies blocked two kicks this year (a punt and a PAT), both in the season-opening loss to Boise State. Tech has three returns for touchdown. Hosley returned a punt for a TD, and Wilson returned two kickoffs for scores. K Chris Hazley has converted 20 consecutive field goals since missing his first attempt of the season, against Boise State. He is 7-of-7 from beyond 40 yards, including a 52-yarder. P Brian Saunders averages 44.1 yards per attempt. The punt coverage has been good, the kickoff coverage shaky. Edge: Virginia Tech.

Stanford coaches vs. Virginia Tech coaches: Jim Harbaugh has turned around the culture at Stanford, but he's still seeking his first bowl win; the Cardinal lost 31-27 in the Sun Bowl last season, a game Luck missed because of injury. Fangio was the Rivals.com defensive coordinator of the year; his arrival from the NFL has resulted in vastly better tackling and coverage. Frank Beamer's resume is an impressive one, with 18 consecutive bowl appearances and 198 wins. The one thing it's lacking is wins over top-five teams. Stanford provides Beamer another opportunity. Beamer and his staff may have had one of their best seasons after recovering from a 0-2 start that included a loss to FCS member James Madison. Virginia Tech comes in having won 11 in a row. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster is acclaimed as one of the best in the nation. Edge: Stanford.

X-factor: On an 11-1 team with a Heisman finalist, Stanford FB/RB Owen Marecic may be the most impressive player on the field. He doesn't lead Stanford in any category except maybe total plays. As a fullback, he has rushed for four touchdowns and caught nine passes for 75 yards. On defense, he has 45 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss and five pass breakups.

Stanford will win if: The defense performed well in the final five games of the season, shutting out two of those opponents. That stellar defensive effort has to continue. Being multi-dimensional on offense also is important, and avoiding special teams mistakes always is important against Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech will win if: The Hokies have to find a way to force Luck into mistakes or turnovers. That's easier said than done, of course, but Tech's secondary is one of the best in the nation. Luck is better than any quarterback in the ACC and the best Virginia Tech faced since Boise State's Kellen Moore completed 23-of-38 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the opener.

EXPERT PICKS

Gerry Ahern: Stanford 24, Virginia Tech 14
Olin Buchanan: Stanford 34, Virginia Tech 24
Tom Dienhart: Stanford 35, Virginia Tech 24
David Fox: Stanford 28, Virginia Tech 24
Mike Huguenin: Stanford 38, Virginia Tech 24
Steve Megargee: Stanford 31, Virginia Tech 24

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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