We all know what should happen.

But what should happen in college football, thanks to the contortions of the Bowl Championship Series formula, is usually not what happens.

What should happen, after Stanford's piece of performance art Saturday night in a 38-0 squash job over Oregon State, is a trip to Pasadena for the Cardinal.

But that's not what probably will happen.

What should happen, after Stanford finished its regular season with an 11-1 record that is the program's best since a 1940 undefeated season, is an appearance in the Rose Bowl.

But that's not what probably will happen.

What should happen, after Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck rolled up 305 yards and four touchdowns Saturday, is a high-powered matchup pairing him against the high-powered running attack of Big Ten champion Wisconsin.

But that's not what probably will happen.

What will happen?

If Stanford is lucky, it will play in the Fiesta Bowl or Orange Bowl. And if Stanford is not lucky, it will play in the Alamo Bowl. That's what will happen.

Is this fair? What does Stanford wide receiver Doug Baldwin think?

"It doesn't matter what I think," Baldwin said. "The BCS has to decide. I feel like we're an exciting team to watch. I don't know what part of the country wouldn't want to see Stanford football."


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Funny that he should mention geography. Because that is, indeed, part of Stanford's problem.

Let us stipulate that the Bowl Championship Series is a complex system with many arcane rules that were dreamed up at a drunken convention of computer programmers and NCAA athletic directors.

One of those arcane rules directly affects Stanford, whose only defeat this season was to Oregon, which will almost surely play in the national championship game. This means that the Cardinal must secure an at-large invitation to play in one of the other four BCS games.

However, it is doubtful that the Rose Bowl will be able to invite Stanford -- because the rules say that the game's organizers will have to invite TCU, currently ranked third in the BCS standings.

That leaves the other three BCS games -- the Orange in Miami, the Sugar in New Orleans and the Fiesta in Glendale, Ariz. But as we all know, Stanford fans don't have a reputation for turning out in great numbers (there were sections of empty seats again Saturday) or traveling far distances. Which means that those faraway games may not be eager to extend an invitation.

That would be so wrong. But it so could happen.

"I think we're the best one-loss team in the country," Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas said. "I don't see why we shouldn't go to a BCS game."

"I think our guys have made their case on the field," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said.

Yes, they have. And, fortunately, that could bring another loophole into play. If the Cardinal is ranked No. 4 or higher in the final BCS standings a week from today, it would be guaranteed a BCS bid. The Fiesta and the Orange are the most probable suitors because the Sugar Bowl is believed to want Ohio State.

Got a headache yet, trying to figure it all out? Imagine if you are one of the Stanford players. Luck, for instance, seems to be holding out hope that Pasadena is still Stanford's destiny -- but that could only be the case if Auburn loses the Southeastern Conference title game to South Carolina next weekend and Oregon beats Oregon State.

"It would be nice to play there," Luck said of Pasadena. "The Rose Bowl, 99 out of 100 times, that's where the Pac-10 champion goes. I guess it would lose a little luster if Oregon is the champion and going somewhere else "... but really, any bowl is going to be nice."

Even the Alamo Bowl? It's a swell game played in a fun city, San Antonio. But compared with the main showroom glitz of the BCS games, the Alamo Bowl is a lounge act. Stanford deserves a BCS appearance.

It all may work out. Stanford was No. 6 in the standings last week, and others ahead of them lost, so the Cardinal should be ranked at least No. 4 when the rankings come out today -- but there is some concern that Wisconsin and its point-a-minute team may jump over the Cardinal to hit that spot. And that would give the Fiesta and Orange bowl folk a chance to dump on Stanford and send the Cardinal to Texas.

What should happen is that one of the country's top four teams should be ranked as "... well, as one of the country's top four teams.

What will happen is anyone's guess.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5092.