It's time to start paying attention to Pac-10 leading Stanford

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The last time most college football fans paid any attention to Stanford, the Cardinal was executing an incomprehensible upset of USC at the L.A. Coliseum, back in 2007.

It's time to look again.

The Cardinal beat UCLA 24-16 Saturday -- the score stood 24-6 at one point -- to move to 4-1 overall and 3-0 in the Pac-10. And Stanford's seat atop the conference standings might be more than statistical, or a function of the calendar.

The game of the week was supposed to take place in Berkeley, across the bay. But losses by USC and Cal took some of the luster off that matchup, and suddenly, the race seems wide-open.

Why not the Cardinal?

In Jim Harbaugh's third season, Stanford is off to its best start since 1995. The defense is solid, if unspectacular. These guys are fueled by a pair of offensive playmakers leading a unit that recalls, well, those old Michigan teams Harbaugh used to quarterback.

Andrew Luck, son of former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, is pretty good and getting better. The Cardinal has an underrated workhorse tailback in Toby Gerhart -- and frankly, calling him a workhorse is a slight, because he's big and powerful, but he's not a plodder.

The balanced offense will give good defenses fits. That' s what UCLA has, by the way. A decent defense. But the Bruins' lack of offense killed any realistic chance of winning on the road -- or maybe anywhere against this Stanford team.

Last week, the Cardinal manhandled Washington, which was fresh off its upset of USC, and we probably should have recognized something was brewing.

Against UCLA, Gerhart ran for three touchdowns (and 134 yards, on 29 carries). He's really, really hard to stop, and deceptively nimble. Luck threw for 198, and completed 14 of his first 17 passes. There might not be a better guy throwing the deep ball on the West coast.

But this offense is about toughness and power, like those old Michigan teams. It's where Gerhart comes in. As an example, check out the Cardinal's first scoring drive, in the first quarter.

UCLA led 3-0, but Stanford went 80 yards in 11 plays to take the lead for good. Luck hit Ryan Whalen for 40 yards, jumpstarting the drive. Mostly, Gerhart banged downfield, notching six carries for 22 yards -- two, zero, nine, four, two and five for the touchdown. His longest run was 20 yards, which simply means he didn't quite break free.

It sure looks like Stanford might be primed to break loose, though, even if the final score didn't quite show it.

UCLA, which entered the game as the Pac-10's last unbeaten team, scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, but the Cardinal controlled the game for most of the afternoon. It's time the voters in all those polls take a long, hard look.

The only blemish so far was a road loss to Wake Forest, one of the ACC's lesser lights. But we're looking at a team that has gotten better each week since.

Up next, a few tests. The Cardinal plays road games at Oregon State and Arizona -- neither place particularly hospitable to visitors -- and then hosts Arizona State.

It's not inconceivable that a month from now, Stanford could host Oregon in a showdown for the Rose Bowl. After that comes the trip to the Coliseum.

We know what can happen there.