If there's anything more fashionable than picking Stanford to face a team from the SEC in the national championship game, it's comparing Stanford to a team from the SEC. Fans and pundits alike have noticed the similarities in style of play.
Just don't mention it around a certain Stanford coach.
"I don't necessarily take it as a compliment," said David Shaw, whose fifth-ranked Cardinal opens the season Saturday against San Jose State.
Like SEC teams, Stanford favors a suffocating defense and bruising running attack and final scores in the 20s.
Like SEC teams, Stanford prefers brute force over the slice-and-dice method favored by teams that use the spread offense.
It's not a bad approach, given that the SEC has won the past seven national titles.
But that's not why Stanford opts to beat its opponents into submission rather than dazzle them with a warp-speed attack.
"We play the style of football I grew up with," Shaw said. "It's not because that's the way they play at Alabama or LSU. That means nothing to us."
Shaw grew up in Union City admiring Bill Walsh's 49ers. He then played for Walsh at Stanford and counts the master as one of his mentors.
Another is Jon Gruden, the former Raiders coach who honed his philosophy while working under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay in the 1990s. Holmgren, too, was a Walsh disciple.
"With what we do, you can draw a line from the 49ers of the '80s to Gruden ... to here," said Shaw, who worked for Gruden in Philadelphia and Oakland. "It's the West Coast passing game with a physical running game.
"It so happens that everyone (in the Pac-12) runs the spread."
Jim Harbaugh favors the ground-and-pound approach, as well. When he took the Stanford job in December 2006 and brought Shaw with him from the University of San Diego, they settled on the Walshian style of play.
The approach makes ample use of tight ends and fullbacks -- positions that fit within Stanford's recruiting parameters.
"It's the right way for them to play because they can't recruit speed the way other teams recruit speed," former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "David would never tip his hat to the SEC. He and Jim went back to drawing board, and this style is the best fit. They built it brilliantly."
Neuheisel calls Stanford's style "football in a phone booth."
While other teams in the Pac-12 have gravitated to the spread offense, which uses the shotgun formation and eschews tight ends and fullbacks, the Cardinal under Harbaugh/Shaw has veered in the opposite direction.
Instead of deploying a fleet of 200-pound receivers, Stanford trots to the line of scrimmage with an array of 250-pound tight ends and fullbacks and the quarterback in the traditional position under center.
Then it makes ample use of pulling guards and off-tackle runs that, over the course of the game, wear down smaller defenses that have been built to stop the spread.
"I can see why people compare us to teams from the SEC," said Stanford defensive end Henry Anderson, who grew up in Atlanta and is one of four defensive starters from SEC territory. "You don't usually see the spread with a team like Alabama. We're more similar to SEC than we are to the spread teams of the Pac-12."
The similarities aren't confined to offense. If anything, the comparison is more valid this season on the other side of the ball.
"Stanford always used to be able to score," Neuheisel said. "The difference these days is their ability to play defense."
SEC defenses smother their opponents with schemes that rely on straight-ahead power over lateral quickness.
The linemen and linebackers are often bigger and have longer arms, than counterparts from other leagues.
They're more physical, too -- they have to be in order to hold up in practice against their own team's running game.
The cycle feeds on itself, whether it's in Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge or Stanford.
Just don't tell Shaw.
"I'd rather have people say we're old school," he said. "That's what makes me happy."
David Shaw, shown after the 2013 Rose Bowl win, learned plenty from Bill Walsh (top left), Jon Gruden (top right) and Jim Harbaugh.
San Jose State
(1-0) at Stanford (0-0), 8 p.m.
All the information you need to get the Cardinal season started. PAGE 6