With a nod to the college football playoff that begins next season, let's step back, suspend reality and have a little fun: What if the Stanford Cardinal were involved in a four-team playoff -- with itself?
Stanford's 2010-13 teams are arguably the best in school history. But which is the best of the best? And how should they be seeded?
The evaluation isn't as straightforward as it might seem initially.
The two teams with quarterback Andrew Luck -- the best player Stanford has produced in the past 30 years -- did not beat Oregon or win the Pac-12 championship.
The two teams without Luck toppled the Ducks and won the conference title.
The two Bowl Championship Series game winners faced far weaker opponents than the team that lost in the BCS.
The teams with Luck had overpowering offenses.
The teams without Luck have been dominant defensively.
"Impossible," Stanford coach David Shaw said when asked to name the best of the bunch.
We're game to game-out the hypothetical Cardinal playoff, as is Todd Husak, the Stanford radio analyst and quarterback of the '99 team that played in the Rose Bowl.
"The 2013 team might have the best defense in school history, and the Orange Bowl team (2010 season) might have been the best offense," Husak said.
"But then you look at the other two: The Fiesta Bowl team (2011) was a field goal away from maybe being No. 2 in the country, and the 2012 team won Stanford's first Rose Bowl in 40 years."
For a memory refresh, here's a quick look at each team's bona fides:
Luck directed an offense that averaged 40.3 points per game and featured a slew of future NFL players (nine draft picks and counting).
The defense, which included linebacker Shayne Skov and cornerback Richard Sherman, held each of Stanford's final six opponents under 20 points.
The coaching staff was as good as they come (Jim Harbaugh, David Shaw, Greg Roman, Vic Fangio, etc.).
Final AP ranking: No. 4.
With Luck working behind a fabulous offensive line (guard David DeCastro, tackle Jonathan Martin) and throwing to three NFL-bound tight ends, the Cardinal averaged 43.2 points per game and was as good as anyone early in the year.
But injuries to Skov and tight end Zach Ertz disrupted Stanford's rhythm in the season's second half. The Cardinal needed triple overtime to beat USC, couldn't keep pace with the Ducks and struggled against Cal a week later.
Final AP ranking: No. 7.
The defense was granite, allowing more than 20 points in just three games. But without Luck, the Cardinal was uneven offensively until quarterback Kevin Hogan entered the lineup and sparked a November charge.
The Cardinal won its last eight games, beat No. 1 Oregon in Eugene, handled UCLA in the Pac-12 title game and survived a taut Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.
Final AP ranking: No. 7.
Stocked with draft picks on every level, the defense is one of the nation's best (third against the run, 10th in scoring). So are the special teams, which include All-America kick returner Ty Montgomery.
Powered by tailback Tyler Gaffney, the offense averages 210 yards per game on the ground and has steamrollered most opponents, including Oregon.
Stanford struggled on the road (losses at Utah and USC) but dominated the Pac-12 title game at Arizona State.
Current AP rank: No. 5.
As would be expected, it's not an easy choice.
"If you had four different playoffs, you'd probably have four different winners,'' said junior linebacker A.J. Tarpley, a redshirt on the 2010 team.
As it often the case with these topics, the conclusion depends on how you define "best."
Stanford's best win over the past four years was the victory at No. 1 Oregon, but its best performance -- with equal consideration given to quality of opponent, stakes and victory margin -- was either the Orange Bowl win or the demolition of Arizona State a few weeks ago.
Should the assessment be based on how well each team was playing at the end of the season? Or the number of NFL draft picks produced (i.e., talent)? Or how good each was during its best stretch of play?
The 2010 team ended the season with an eight-game winning streak.
The 2011 team opened the season with seven consecutive blowouts.
The 2012 team beat four ranked opponents in November.
It's probably premature to judge the '13 team -- a dominating win over No. 4 Michigan State in the Rose Bowl would place the season in a vastly different light from a 10-point loss -- but we'll cast logic aside and render a verdict here.
Our seeds for the Cardinal playoff:
The winner: 2010.
"That team had such balance," Husak said. "Defenses had no shot; they just had to hope Andrew made a mistake. There was no way to stop them.
"Then you have this team: It's special defensively. Force me to choose, and I'll take the team with Andrew. But 2010 against 2013 would be an epic matchup.
"It would make for a great national championship game."
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David Shaw applauds MSU coach for suspending star linebacker. WWW.MERCURYNEWS.COM/SPORTS