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The Stanford of the last month is a top-5 team. The Stanford of last night is the best in FBS.

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The Cardinal have been grind-it-out excellent for most of the last seven years. But leaving-you-in-the-dust excellent? This is pretty new.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Thursday night, No. 18 UCLA, a team that entered the season with dark horse national title hopes and could still very much finish in the top 15, trailed by 18 points at halftime, 35-17. And it seemed like the Bruins were actually playing well.

No, seriously. I'm sure frustrated UCLA fans will disagree, and I'm sure they could point to a few plays and mistakes to bolster their case. Of course. But any mistakes UCLA made were within the realm of acceptability for a pretty good team. And the Bruins were getting run off the field.

Eight years and 10 days ago, Stanford sent a warning signal to the rest of the sport by beating USC, 24-23, when the Trojans were not far removed from their Pete Carroll peak. But even since then, as the Cardinal rained fire on the West Coast, went 23-3 in 2010-11 and won two Pac-12 titles after Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck left, they rarely looked like this.

Heading into Thursday, No. 15 Stanford had defeated its previous four opponents (UCF, USC, Oregon State and Arizona) by a combined 169-79. They averaged a murderous 6.7 yards per play against those first two victims, then 8.1 against the next two.

Against UCLA, the 56-35 outcome felt settled after eight minutes. And again, UCLA was playing well! A jaunty run by Christian McCaffrey allowed Stanford to pin the Bruins at their 8 on the first possession, and an Alijah Holder pick-six made it 7-0 Stanford five plays later. After a UCLA field goal, McCaffrey returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards to set up a one-play touchdown drive. UCLA struck back -- see? -- and Stanford responded with two Stanford-esque grinds: 14 plays, 74 yards and 7:31 of possession, then nine, 71 and 5:28. It was 35-10 after 28 minutes.

And Francis Owusu hadn't even made the catch of the year, the catch of a lifetime, yet.

Stanford saved that for the third quarter.

I mean ... Stanford, you're making your stolid coach, whose base expression is that of a Silicon Valley accountant driving home from work, make faces like a bass player in the middle of a solo.

Last night in an earlier game, Auburn was punting on fourth-and-1 and playing boring, frustrating football (even while winning), and you're over here unleashing big hits and flashy runs and impossible, beyond impossible, catches. I don't know what to believe anymore.

Even when the Cardinal had a future No. 1 draft choice and all-pro quarterback, Stanford never had flash.

It's not something Harbaugh particularly believes in (as he's currently proving with a Michigan team that is winning games by bear hugging opponents at their 30-yard lines and at some point accidentally scoring points, too). Previous great Stanford teams filled you with dread, made you aware of your mortality, tilted the field at a 30-degree angle and waited. This one runs not only through you but dances around you, too.

David Shaw is known for fullbacks, tight ends and punting from the 35, and now he's got a team that finishes drives with clinical precision, flips the field at a 45-degree angle, makes acrobatic plays, produces amazing catches and has someone (McCaffrey) capable of not only 96-yard kickoff returns but 25-carry, 243-yard, four-touchdown rushing performances against decent defenses.

And not only is this Stanford offense flashier than Auburn's, the defense is keeping it together at a top-30 level despite having only about eight warm bodies and three guys you'd heard of before September. This isn't Stanford's best defense, but it might be defensive coordinator (sorry, Willie Shaw Director of Defense) Lance Anderson's best coaching job yet, and he did a pretty awesome job last year.

Look, the Northwestern loss isn't going to make sense.

It's impossible to reconcile the performance of that team -- uncertain, physical without a purpose, incapable of actually punching the ball into the end zone -- with what we've since seen. (Well, it's at least a little bit possible because Northwestern's defense is still the best the Cardinal has seen. But the contrast has been ridiculous.)

It is probably impossible to sustain this level for another six regular season games (plus up to three postseason games) without another lapse. But depending on the timing and length of those lapses -- if they happen, for instance, against Washington State or Colorado as opposed to Cal or Notre Dame -- the Cardinal could be positioning themselves for a deep run.

You never know about staying power in advance, but the Stanford team we've been watching over the last month has been elite by almost any definition of the word. And if we see a lot more of the one we saw last night, with swagger, confidence and a large dose of flash to go with the brutality, we might be looking at a title favorite.

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