Pac-12 football: Stanford’s stunning comeback at Colorado echoes a breakthrough win 16 years ago

Like Jim Harbaugh in 2007, first-year coach Troy Taylor needed a signature win.

Stanford’s stunning victory over Colorado on Friday night, in which the Cardinal overcame a 29-0 halftime deficit, was the Pac-12’s fourth-largest comeback and the largest since UCLA rallied from 32 down to defeat Washington State four years ago.

However, Stanford’s relevant comparison is 16 years old.

The 46-43 double-overtime victory in Boulder echoes Stanford’s stunning upset of USC under another first-year head coach attempting to revitalize the program.

Taylor compares October 13, 2023 to Jim Harbaugh’s miracle on October 6, 2007.

Yes, the trappings are unique.

Stanford was a 41-point underdog at the time, whereas the point spread on Friday was barely in the double digits (11.5 points).

Of course, this Colorado team isn’t in the same league as the USC powerhouse Stanford demolished in the L.A. Coliseum on that surreal evening. The Trojans were on their way to the Rose Bowl; the Buffaloes (4-3) will be lucky to make any bowl.

However, given Stanford’s complicated internal dynamics, the impact of the 2023 comeback and the 2007 upset feel similar.

Harbaugh had been on the job for ten months and was attempting to revitalize a program that not only lacked the talent and depth needed to win, but also lacked the resources and institutional commitment needed to compete with the best in the Pac-12.

Stanford did not pay competitive assistant salaries or provide adequate on-campus housing for the football staff, making it difficult to retain good coaches.

It lacked the resources to scour the country for elite recruits who could also meet the school’s admissions standards.

Football was viewed as a necessary evil rather than a powerful potential marketing tool for the university.

The Cardinal entered the Coliseum that afternoon with a 1-3 record, fresh off a thrashing at the hands of Arizona State, and were given no chance against an opponent who hadn’t lost at home in six years.

The 24-23 win wasn’t just the biggest upset in college football history (based on the point spread); it also changed the perception of the program, legitimized Harbaugh’s tenure, and provided fuel for his resuscitation effort.

Now Taylor arrives, ten months into his tenure as head of a program that has fallen behind its peers on multiple levels: Weak scrimmage lines. Inadequate perimeter speed. There is no obvious starting quarterback. And menacing off-field forces.

The transfer portal and name, image, and likeness (NIL) — the twin pillars of roster-building for most Power Five schools but not, of course, for Stanford — are the equivalents of Stanford’s 2007 resource challenges.

Taylor must build a competitive roster the old-fashioned way, with high school recruits, and hope for some transfer flexibility from the university.

Stanford is living in 2007, both on and off the field.

That brings us back to the present day. To the bizarre events of Friday night in Boulder.

Stanford had two weeks to prepare for the Buffaloes but played as if it only had two days. The first half was slow, sloppy, and uninspired as CU raced to a 29-0 lead.

Taylor said after the game that his halftime message was understated — “I want to see how you compete,” he told the players — a stark contrast to Harbaugh’s blazing pregame speech in the Coliseum locker room 16 years earlier.

But Taylor’s matter-of-fact tone was just right. The Cardinal scored on their first possession of the second half and on each subsequent possession until the second overtime period. At 12:21 a.m. (Mountain Time), it walked out of a stunned, silent Folsom Field with a victory that has few equals in the conference’s 108-year history.

Taylor’s win was a statement win, partly because of the opponent — Colorado coach Deion Sanders is the center of the college football universe in the same way that USC’s Pete Carroll was in the mid-2000s — and partly because of how it happened.

Rallying from 29 points down isn’t the same as winning as a 41-point underdog, but it’s close enough.

Stanford’s season was derailed by the upset of USC; the Cardinal lost five of their next seven games and finished 4-8.

Expect nothing different from Stanford (2-4), especially with a stretch-run schedule that includes four ranked teams.

The significance of the upset, however, lies in the legitimacy it lends to Taylor’s rebuild, much like the USC upset did for Harbaugh’s reclamation project a decade and a half ago.

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