PHOENIX — Jim Harbaugh has been rebuilding Stanford's program gradually over his four years in the Bay Area, bringing in players who fit his lip-busting system, instilling a toughness that had been missing in previous years.
The culmination of that work has come this season, with the Cardinal's first 4-0 start in 24 years and a No. 9 ranking in The Associated Press poll.
Next up is the biggest game in the program's recent history, a see-where-we-stand showdown with No. 4 Oregon and a chance to reach 5-0 for the first time since 1951.
"It's a monumental game," Harbaugh said.
It's a rare experience for the Cardinal, but not for the Pac-10. The conference has had its share of games between Top 10 teams through the years, seven of those in the last decade alone.
A common thread recently is where the games have been played: Eugene.
Saturday's game at Autzen Stadium will be the Pac-10's fourth-straight game between two Top 10 teams in the last four seasons. And the bad news for Stanford is that the Ducks won the previous three.
A quick look back:
- Oct. 27, 2007, No. 5 Oregon 24, No. 9 USC 17. USC held the Ducks, who entered second nationally in total offense, to 200 yards below their average. The Trojans just couldn't come up with the big plays down the stretch, their last hope ending with Matthew Harper's interception in the end zone. Jonathan Stewart ran for 103 yards and two touchdowns for Oregon, while USC's Mark Sanchez completed 26 of 41 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns.
- Nov. 3, 2007. No. 4 Oregon 35, No. 6 Arizona State 23. The Sun Devils came into the game as one of five undefeated teams in major college football, only to have their national championship hopes dashed by Dennis Dixon. The Oregon quarterback threw for just 189 yards, but four of his 13 completions were for touchdowns before he left with an injury in the fourth quarter. ASU's Rudy Carpenter threw for 379 yards and two touchdowns, but was sacked eight times.
- Oct. 31, 2009. No. 10 Oregon 47, No. 4 USC 20. The Ducks ran all over the nation's fifth-best rushing defense, piling up 391 yards to give USC its worst loss in 12 years. Jeremiah Masoli threw for 222 yards and a touchdown and ran for 164 more yards with another score for Oregon. USC freshman Matt Barkley threw for 187 yards and two scores.
Oregon's Top 10 success, along with its recent run against the Cardinal — 7-1 since 2002 — would seem to give the Ducks the advantage.
Stanford does have some history it can point to, though.
In 2001, the Cardinal gave Oregon its only loss of the season, beating the fifth-ranked Ducks in a 49-42 shootout in Eugene. Another upset came just last season, when the Cardinal beat up No. 7 Oregon in a physical 51-42 win at home.
"I think the big thing in the past is people overlooked Stanford and that's what's hurt teams in the past," Oregon defensive lineman Brandon Bair said. "They haven't always been the best team and people have overlooked them, but Stanford comes out and they play hard."
The Stanford-Oregon series dates back to 1900 and, oddly enough, this will be the first time in 74 games the teams will meet when both are ranked.
It could be the most epic, too, a style battle between Stanford's helmet-cracking power and Oregon's are-we-playing-against-12-guys speed. For the Ducks, it's the biggest step so far toward repeating as Pac-10 champions, while the Cardinal get a chance to see just how far they've come.
"As one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, one of my favorite philosophers of the 20th century, Ric Flair would say, 'If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man.'" Harbaugh said.
And, man, it should be fun to watch.