The Big Game is particularly gigantic this year for California.
The fourth-ranked Golden Bears hope to stay in position for a BCS bowl, possibly their first Rose Bowl berth in 45 years, as they meet the Cardinal on Saturday in the latest edition of one of college football’s best rivalries.
“This is special, this has a different flavor, a healthy environment that a lot of people get very, very excited about,” third-year Cal coach Jeff Tedford said.
The Bears (8-1, 6-1 Pac-10) had lost seven straight in this series before Tedford took over, but he’s since led them to victory in two Big Game appearances—30-7 in 2002 and 28-16 in 2003. Last season’s result made Cal postseason eligible, and knocked Stanford out of bowl contention.
The Cardinal (4-6, 2-5) are out of the running for a bowl berth, relegated to playing spoilers against their biggest rival.
Cal, enjoying its highest ranking since 1952, stands fourth in the BCS standings. The top six receive automatic bids to one of four BCS games, and the Bears would be very happy to end up with its first Rose Bowl trip since 1959.
That spot usually goes to the Pac-10 champion, and USC has wrapped up the conference title. However, the top-ranked Trojans will head to the Orange Bowl to play for the national championship if they finish the regular season unbeaten, leaving a spot for Cal to play in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.
“We don’t talk about (the BCS) as a team,” Tedford said. “I’m not naive. I know our guys see that on TV, but I have tremendous trust that our team realizes what’s important and that’s preparation and focus one week at a time.”
A victory this week would be historic, and not just because it would give Cal its first three-game winning streak over Stanford since 1958-60.
The Bears are looking to tie the single-season school record for Pac-10 wins, set by the 1949 team that went 7-0. With a 4-0 home record and having won five straight overall, Cal also can post the program’s first perfect season at home and first six-game win streak since 1950.
J.J. Arrington, Geoff McArthur and Aaron Rodgers have keyed Cal’s best season in a half-century.
With 1,415 rushing yards, Arrington is 46 away from breaking Chuck Muncie’s school record set in 1975. McArthur also looks to enter the Cal record book, standing four receptions shy of Dameane Douglas’ school record of 195.
McArthur broke one of Douglas’ marks in last year’s meeting with Stanford, making a school-record 16 catches for 245 yards and two touchdowns.
Rodgers set a Big Game record in that contest with 414 yards of total offense, including 359 through the air. This season, he’s the Pac-10 leader in passing efficiency at 163.4, completing 68.5 percent for 1,977 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions.
While Cal’s offense ranks fifth in the country with 38.1 points per game, the defense is allowing 13.9 to rank sixth. The Bears joins USC as the only teams among the top 10 in both categories.
“The most impressive way they play is on the defensive side of the football. They’re a very cohesive group,” Cardinal coach Buddy Teevens said. “Offensively, they’re immaculate. They’re running game has been formidable this year, their passing game as well.”
It’s possible Teevens is coaching his final game at Stanford, headed for his third losing season in as many years since taking over. The Cardinal, though, have been very competitive.
Of their five conference losses, four were by five points or fewer. Stanford fell 31-28 to USC in September and the team’s current four-game losing streak includes three-point losses to Oregon and Arizona State, as well as last week’s 24-19 defeat to Oregon State.
“Am I disappointed this year? I’d hoped we would have a few more wins,” Teevens said. “We put ourselves in position to get a few more wins and we didn’t get them for any number of reasons. Progress has been made. Am I satisfied? No. I want to win them all.”
Now the question is can winning the Big Game save his job.