MIAMI – Stanford’s football program was in a slump in 2006 when Thomas Keiser, a widely recruited prep defensive lineman from Pennsylvania, accepted a scholarship offer to play for the Cardinal.
“I committed very early – I believe it was June before my senior year,” Keiser said. “My dad actually made me commit, and I was kind of mad at him.”
Keiser had reason to second-guess his father when Stanford subsequently staggered through a 1-11 season in 2006.
Then came the rebound. The Cardinal hired Jim Harbaugh as coach, and four years later they’re 11-1, ranked No. 5 and preparing to play No. 12 Virginia Tech (11-2) in the Orange Bowl on Monday night.
Harbaugh said he envisioned such success.
“Not only did I envision it, I promised it to my team,” he said. “I remember telling the guys that the first time I ever had them together. They’re the ones who delivered on it and made me look good.”
The Hokies are in Miami thanks to a turnaround of their own. Ranked No. 10 and touted as national championship contenders at the start of the season, they opened with a loss at Boise State and a shocking defeat at home against lower-tier James Madison, all in a span of five days.
“The way we started off the season was awful,” quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “It just didn’t go as planned.”
Taylor and his teammates regrouped and swept the next 11 games, including all eight in the Atlantic Coast Conference to win the title for the fourth time since joining the league in 2004.
Tech’s poor start was a shocker, and not just because of the loss to a lower-division team. The Hokies hadn’t been 0-2 since 1995, and their streak of six consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins was in jeopardy.
“We’re fortunate we have some good-character kids, because I think it takes that to come back from two devastating losses with such high hopes going into the season,” coach Frank Beamer said. “We didn’t practice any different. Our kids didn’t point fingers and went right back to work.”
The Hokies rallied from a 17-point deficit on the road to beat No. 23-ranked North Carolina State. They clinched their division with a win at No. 14 Miami. They beat No. 20 Florida State to win the ACC championship game for the third time in four years.
As a result, Beamer’s team is in a bowl game for the 18th straight year, and Stanford’s No. 5 ranking provides Tech a chance for a breakthrough.
The Hokies are 1-26 against top-five teams, with the most recent defeat this season’s loss to then-No. 3 Boise State. It’s an astounding record of futility for such a successful program, and it grates on coaches and players.
While Tech brings plenty of momentum into the Orange Bowl, so does Stanford. The Cardinal blew an early 18-point lead in a loss to unbeaten Oregon in early October, then swept the final seven games to earn their first BCS bowl berth. Quarterback Andrew Luck finished second in the Heisman Trophy race, and the defense posted three shutouts.
Now Stanford seeks its first bowl win since the 1996 season. A victory would cap the four-year climb from the Pac-10 cellar to the sport’s elite level.