STANFORD (AP) — Stanford coach David Shaw often references Oregon if his players get complacent in practice. Trainers bark out the results of the last two matchups to them in the weight room. During offseason workouts, the defensive huddle would sometimes break with the chant: "Beat the Ducks."
It's no secret who Stanford is after.
For the past two years, the Cardinal have been the Pac-12's second-best team. All along they've been chasing the same program, and — like everybody else in the conference — have been unable to keep pace.
Just how far Stanford is from unseating Oregon depends on who you ask.
Las Vegas bookies believe it's 21½ points. Cardinal linebacker Chase Thomas called the difference between the teams "a second half." Shaw said "the gap is as big as the score the last two years," with Stanford losing by an average of 22 points.
The one true measuring stick for how close — or far — the teams really are now will come Saturday night, when No. 14 Stanford (8-2, 6-1) faces top-ranked Oregon (10-0, 7-0) at ear-piercing Autzen Stadium with the league's North Division lead at stake.
"This is pretty much our Pac-12 championship game," Thomas said.
In everything but name, it has been the past the two seasons.
Stanford lost 53-30 at home last November in a game Oregon never trailed — nor was seriously challenged. Two years ago, the Ducks rallied from a 21-3 deficit in the first quarter to blow past the Cardinal 52-31 in Eugene.
Both losses cost Stanford the league title and a spot in the BCS national championship game.
"They do this thing where they play close for a half and then they just take off," Stanford senior defensive tackle Terrence Stephens said. "It's going to take our best game to win."
Even that might not be enough.
After Stanford squeaked by Oregon State 27-23 last week to set up the division showdown with Oregon, Shaw spared the coachspeak during his postgame news conference about his team's chances against the Ducks, saying "it's going to take our best game and not their best game for us to pull this off."
Shaw meant no disrespect to his players nor was he trying to overpraise the competition. Instead, it's a matter of reality.
The fact Stanford is even in this position is somewhat surprising. Along with losing No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck, three others were selected in the top 42 picks — right guard David DeCastro, tight end Coby Fleener and left tackle Jonathan Martin — and both starting safeties, cornerbacks and wide receivers also departed.
Josh Nunes struggled to live up to Luck's gargantuan benchmarks, starting the first eight games until redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan replaced him last week. Hogan, a dual-threat quarterback who has shown flashes of Luck-like ability, will start again.
The offense is carried by Stepfan Taylor — who is 202 yards shy of Darrin Nelson's school record of 4,033 career yards rushing — and the defense is led by a front seven leading the nation in several categories.
Even with all the Cardinal have endured, including an overtime loss at third-ranked Notre Dame and a collapse at Washington, they are still essentially in the same place they were a year ago: with a shot to overtake Oregon for league supremacy.
"We were undefeated at this time last year playing Oregon," Stanford senior center Sam Schwartzstein said. "But our losses, we can make up for them with a win this week against Oregon."
The Ducks can clinch the division with a victory this week before they finish at Oregon State in the Civil War rivalry. If they can upset Oregon, the Cardinal would still need to win at No. 17 UCLA in the regular-season finale to advance to the league title game.
While Oregon ran away with the last two games, Stanford upset the then-No. 7 Ducks 51-42 in 2009. However, the Cardinal haven't won at Autzen Stadium since 2001, a place so loud the last time, Stanford players said the pebbles from the turf shook.
But Stanford is not alone in its struggles against the Ducks.
Oregon has won the last three league titles. USC handed Oregon it's only league loss last season, and the only other teams to beat the Ducks the last three years are Auburn in the national title game in January 2011 and LSU in last season's opener at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
"I think the entire conference," Shaw said, "has an Oregon problem."