The Stanford football team that was supposed to be down on its luck this season is instead one victory from smelling the roses.
Seven months after all-everything quarterback Andrew Luck was the top pick in the NFL draft, Stanford is on the brink of a feat it never accomplished during his career: winning the conference title.
A victory over UCLA on Friday in the Pac-12 championship game would send Stanford to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000.
"People don't get it," senior linebacker Chase Thomas said. "We're not going away."
In successive seasons, Stanford has weathered the departures of star running back Toby Gerhart, coach Jim Harbaugh and now, the incomparable Luck.
Projected by pundits everywhere to finish second and participate in a midlevel bowl game, Stanford is 10-2, champion of the Pac-12 North division and ranked No. 8 nationally.
If not for a controversial overtime loss at Notre Dame, Stanford would be in contention for the national championship.
And the success isn't likely to end this season. Many of the team's best players are underclassmen -- the roster is stocked for another title run next year.
"It's a program that can sustain itself," former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "It's not like it's hard for them to find people who want to go to Stanford. Every mom and dad wants to put that bumper sticker on their car."
Stanford's success is based, in part, on turning its academic reputation into an advantage on the recruiting trail. The coaching staff sells top prospects — and their parents -- on the opportunity to receive a first-class education and play for one of the best teams in the country.
It helps, too, that the coaches can dangle the chance to eventually play professionally in front of wide-eyed recruits. In the past three years, Stanford has produced 11 NFL draft picks -- more than traditional football factories like Florida State and Michigan.
"It's phenomenal," Neuheisel added. "They're a big-time program."
The common thread during Stanford's string of stellar seasons is head coach David Shaw, who was an assistant under Harbaugh, then took charge of his alma mater when Harbaugh left for the 49ers in 2011.
In two seasons as head coach, Shaw has compiled a 21-4 record and been named conference coach of the year not once but twice -- becoming just the fifth coach in league history to win the award in back-to-back seasons.
Shaw, 40, has a firm grasp of football tactics and is well liked by his players. He also possesses a deep understanding of the university, having played receiver for Stanford during Bill Walsh's tenure in the early 1990s.
"There's a certain kind of person who succeeds at Stanford," he said. "We want tough, smart athletes who hate to lose. Stanford kids want to do well in school; they want to do well in football; they want to do well at everything."
The roster is a mix of players from different regions with varying high school accolades. Some had scholarship offers from top-10 teams, but many were considered midlevel prospects, if that. Defensive end Ben Gardner, who was recently named to the all-conference team, wasn't recruited by any other major colleges.
But from the best player to the last man on the bench, they all excel at Stanford's old school brand of football. Much like the 49ers under Harbaugh, Stanford plays punishing defense and relies on a bruising running game.
"They want to get you in a phone booth and pound on you," Neuheisel said. "They've stayed true to their culture. It's one thing to say something like that and another to live it, and they live it. There's such a buy-in from everyone that they can weather the storm of losing a guy like Andrew Luck."
The post-Luck era hasn't been without hiccups, especially on offense. A late-season quarterback change to ultra-mobile freshman Kevin Hogan provided a needed spark (think: Colin Kaepernick), but Stanford is averaging 14 fewer points per game than it did with Luck in command.
The strength of the team, instead, is the immovable defense. Led by a ferocious group of linebackers (more 49er parallels), Stanford ranks No. 1 in the country in numerous categories and recently held high-powered Oregon to just 14 points.
The combination of mediocre offense and granite defense has resulted in a bevy of close, low-scoring games -- a stark contrast to the high-scoring blowouts Stanford produced in years past.
But much like their even-keeled coach, the players are unflappable: Stanford has a 6-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less.
"We win because of the guys in our locker room," Shaw said. "They play well together, they play hard, and when it's tight, they don't fold."
Nor, it seems, do they require any luck.