A Rivalry Of Friends... and Unlikely Outcomes
 
A few years ago, Oregon-Stanford was THE rivalry in the Pac-12. It currently lacks that distinction, and will be buried with an 11 p.m. kickoff time on Saturday night, but it merits attention just the same.

This is not a consequence-free game. Stanford, with one Pac-12 loss, would like to remain in that position after Week 7, keeping itself in the North Division hunt with games against co-leaders Washington and Washington State still to come. 

Oregon's season lost any remaining championship aspirations it might have contained when Justin Herbert (and several other players) got injured in the infirmary-crowding bloodbath against California a few weeks ago. However, the Ducks know that with three of their next four games being on the road -- and their one home game coming against Utah -- they could easily fall to 4-6 after 10 games. 

A bowl game is now Oregon's clear standard for success in 2017. A win on The Farm would make that goal a near certainty. A loss would make the following week's visit to UCLA -- not the hardest game in the world, but just as surely not a cakewalk -- a more important moment than the Ducks would have liked.

This is not a game sent from the gods, staged on the West Coast mountaintop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. That was Chip Kelly versus David Shaw, Marcus Mariota versus the Stanford front seven.

This year's clash is more about survival while the Washington schools try to remain unbeaten and USC and Utah vie for Pac-12 South supremacy.

Yet, Ducks-Trees is significant in 2017 in ways it hasn't been before. Two coaches who used to be Stanford brothers are now on opposite sides of the divide.

Shaw is still a Cardinal figure in Palo Alto, now as the head coach of one of this decade's most robustly successful programs. Late last decade under Jim Harbaugh, Shaw was the offensive coordinator for Stanford. The Harbaugh blueprint came to life with Shaw lending structure and specificity to an offense Andrew Luck turned into a roaring machine... and an Orange Bowl rout of Virginia Tech.

Harbaugh stayed near the San Francisco Bay, but he pursued the greener pastures of the NFL with the 49ers. Shaw didn't merely remain in the Bay Area; he was promoted to the head coaching position at Stanford, filling the very large shoes of his boss.

Despite an occasional detour into the fog of mystifyingly conservative play selection, Shaw has carved out a winning path and a hugely successful career, removed from Harbaugh's shadow. If strong 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons -- with three more BCS bowl appearances, two Pac-12 championships, and a Rose Bowl victory, the Cardinal's first since 1972 -- weren't enough to make Shaw a winner in his own right, the 2015 season, capped by a Rose Bowl blowout of Iowa, affirmed that Shaw possessed more than a little staying power in this business. Harbaugh set the table, but Shaw has adjusted with the times to ensure that Stanford has remained relevant in the realm of elite-level college football.

Now, though, that elite status is being tested -- not to the point that Shaw's legacy is being eroded, but certainly to the point where another response is needed in the face of changing winds.

Trees have to find ways to bend without breaking, after all.

Shaw's challenge in the Pac-12 North briefly became easier in 2015 when Oregon began to slip. The Ducks were Stanford's biggest (yet only) formidable adversary in the division in the early part of the decade. The winner of Oregon-Stanford, from 2010 through 2014, won the Pac-12. In 2015, Stanford won the league, but Oregon ambushed the Cardinal on The Farm, knocking the Trees down and out of the College Football Playoff. Stanford's league title gave Shaw every right to think that the future would remain painted in Cardinal red... but then the coaching in the Pac-12 -- especially the North -- got better.

Mike Leach hit his stride at Washington State. Chris Petersen, needing two years to find his footing and build his infrastructure at Washington, put the pieces together in the always-critical Year 3 for coaches at historically significant programs. It is exactly what Shaw and Stanford had avoided for several years: The slumbering giant in Seattle woke up.

Suddenly, in 2016, Oregon's misery ceased to be Stanford's most important problem. The Ducks' complete dominance of Washington for more than a full decade evaporated into a 70-21 beatdown in Autzen Stadium, a cathartic outpouring of points by the Huskies after years of being embarrassed by Mike Bellotti, Chip, Mariota, and Mark Helfrich.

Shaw watched the winds of change blow through his Trees. He saw them blow through the Willamette Valley and the freshly-stung Ducks.

Oregon didn't waste time. It didn't bother to give Helfrich one more bite of the apple in 2017. It sought a new coach after decades of stasis and internal promotions within its football staff.

It chose the man who was the running back coach with Shaw -- under Harbaugh -- at Stanford in the latter part of the past decade.

Willie Taggart molded Toby Gerhart and kick-started this glorious decade-long period in which Stanford is still cranking out Heisman-worthy running backs who typically finish second.

Gerhart finished second in the 2009 Heisman vote. Christian McCaffrey finished second in 2015. Now Bryce Love is headed for the Downtown Athletic Club -- no sure thing, but in very good position. He could very easily finish second to Penn State's Saquon Barkley.

Taggart and Shaw were present at the creation of Stanford's modern running back factory, which doesn't even include Ty Montgomery, a central part of the Cardinal's Rose Bowl teams under Shaw who played flanker in college but has been moved to running back on many occasions by the Green Bay Packers.

Now, these two co-creators of Stanford's smashmouth offense will try to smash each other... in the most amicable way possible. Their meeting matters for the reasons stated above, but it matters so much more because the man who can gain the upper hand in this rivalry over the next  three or four years (if one DOES; it could be a 50-50 split in the first four games these men coach against each other...) will likely position his team as the main challenger to Washington in the North. 

The context and trajectory of Shaw-Taggart -- and consequently, of Trees-Ducks -- will affect the Pac-12's evolving balance of power. When Pac-12 schedules are released every year, USC fans will hope to avoid the stronger team in the UO-SU pairing and draw the weaker one in the league's four-game cross-division slate. A new chapter of Oregon-Stanford, which begins Saturday night, will similarly determine which team Washington should worry about more in the North in the course of time.

The 2017 edition of Oregon versus Stanford -- the first meeting between Willie Taggart and David Shaw as head coaches -- won't settle arguments or affirm verdicts about either man or program. It will, however, mark a moment of change for what was recently the signature college football game of the year in the Western United States. This game on Saturday might not become an unforgettably significant turning point in the histories of these two schools...

... but it certainly has the potential to be... and that's why it matters more than many might realize.