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 says. "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 says he envisioned such success.
"Not only did I envision it, I promised it to my team," he says. "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 says. "Sorry to say it like that. 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.
Handling the situation required creativity, offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring says.
"There's not a manual that says, 'Step one, in case of crisis ... "' he says. "It's not like you get on the plane and all of a sudden an oxygen mask comes down and you have a step-by-step process."
A meeting of the seniors the day after the James Madison loss prevented panic.
"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 says. "We didn't practice any different. Our kids didn't point fingers and went right back to work.
"The same players we had before the Boise State game and James Madison game were still in our locker room. We thought they were good before those two ballgames, and it turned out to be that way."
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 consecutive year. And Stanford's No. 5 ranking provides Tech with an opportunity 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.
"If you're not careful in this business, you beat yourself up over things," defensive coordinator Bud Foster says. "It is what it is."
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.
"I was here during the dark days when the team was 1-11," says nose tackle Sione Fua, part of a senior class that led the turnaround. "To be where we are now has been great. It has taken a lot of hard work and dedication, but it has paid off.Comment on this story
"We tell the freshmen and sophomores all the time, 'Man, you guys are here during the good times. When we were freshmen, football stunk, and we didn't want to be here. You guys are spoiled, going to a BCS game and staying at the Fountainbleau.'"
Stanford won four games in 2007, five in 2008 and eight in 2009, when the Cardinal earned a berth in the Sun Bowl, their first postseason game since 2001. This season's 11 wins overall and eight in the Pac-10 are school records.
Such success dispelled the notion Stanford's academic standards are too high to field a winning team.
"You do have that reputation — 'It's smart kids, can we play football?'" Keiser says. "This year we showed we can."