Stanford faces UCLA in SEC Pac-12 showdown

Consider the makeup of this year’s 9-2 Stanford team as it prepares to face downstate Pac-12 rival UCLA on Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 PT on FOX), and you’ll be struck by one thing: The eighth-ranked Cardinal might be the most SEC-like team outside the SEC.

They’re a team with a stout defense with a remarkable front seven. Their methodical run-first offense has little use for the passing game outside of play-action plays to keep the defense off balance.

Their defense is 18th in the country in yards allowed per game (328.4) and tied for 10th in points allowed (16.9). Only two SEC teams, Alabama and Florida, rank higher than Stanford in scoring defense. The Cardinal defense ranks second in the nation in both fewest rushing yards allowed per game and most sacks.

Offensively, this is an SEC-style game that Stanford plays, with a mediocre passing attack (88th in the nation with 211.8 yards per game) buttressed by a bruising run game led by senior Stepfan Taylor (1,222 yards and nine touchdowns).

If a dubious call in their overtime loss to Notre Dame had gone the other way, the Cardinal would be one of a handful of one-loss teams we’d be talking about in national title contention. One of those teams would be Oregon, which the Cardinal beat in overtime last weekend in the most impressive victory of second-year coach David Shaw’s tenure.

The other three one-loss teams who’d be in that hypothetical national championship talk? All in the SEC: Alabama, Georgia and Florida.Pay attention to the football and not the uniforms, and this West Coast team could just as easily find itself in the Deep South.

“Is that a compliment or not? I don’t know,” Shaw replied Tuesday to a question about his team seeming more in place in the SEC than in the Pac-12.A compliment? Really, coach Shaw? Of course, it’s a compliment.

The SEC is where the country looks for its best college football. It’s also a conference that frequently, especially at schools like Alabama and LSU, goes against today’s pass-happy, lax-defense college football grain, winning football games the old way.

One of the most remarkable things about Shaw’s Stanford team is how completely different the team looks when compared to last season. In 2011, Andrew Luck, the highest-regarded college quarterback since Peyton Manning, led the Cardinal to a one-loss campaign before a heartbreaking Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.

“Every year you look at your team and you try to play to your strengths,” Shaw explained. “A year ago we had the best quarterback in the nation. We were going to be a 3,000-yard passing team, and a good running team and play good defense, and we were going to score 30-plus points a game.

“This year we don’t have that same person on offense. (So) you lean toward your defense. You run the ball more. You have play action. For us, it’s just playing towards our strength.

“I don’t know this is going to be how we are all the time. But next year we’re going to be good at defense, too.”

Another remarkable part about Stanford is the continuity it has had the past several seasons, despite huge, program-shifting changes. First was losing highly touted coach Jim Harbaugh. In four years, Harbaugh took a 1-11 team and turned it into a 12-1 team. The NFL noticed, and he was hired by the San Francisco 49ers.

Shaw, who’d been the offensive coordinator under Harbaugh, took the reins at the right time, when Luck was starting his junior year. Then Luck went to the NFL as the first pick in this year’s draft, meaning the Cardinal lost an all-world coach and an all-world quarterback in successive seasons.

No matter. The Cardinal keep rumbling along, even as Shaw installed redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan at the helm over junior Josh Nunes in the ninth game of the season.

It’s tempting to wonder how things might have shaken out in Palo Alto had the final play of the Notre Dame game been called correctly. That’s when Taylor appeared to have scored a touchdown in overtime but was ruled down just short of the goal line.

Would the most SEC-like team outside the SEC be trying to break the SEC’s stranglehold on the national title game?

“Number one, I never look back,” Shaw said. “And number two, all of these things are still in the hands of computers and voters. There’s no telling what would or could happen. … I was in a long line of people a year ago that were arguing with computers, and you can’t win an argument with a computer.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.