Coach Jeff Tedford was a dead man walking just two weeks ago. His Cal team had slipped to 1-4 after a lethargic 27-17 home loss to Arizona State and the Twitterverse was flooded with pleas for his removal.
But Tedford suddenly has a pulse after back-to-back wins over UCLA and Washington State and an upset against No. 22 Stanford (4-2) in the Big Game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday would give him a full-fledged heartbeat.
The frustration with Tedford right now is justified. Since Cal reached No. 2 in national polls in October 2007, the Bears have compiled a 34-32 record. Tedford receives a BCS-caliber paycheck ($2,807,500), but Cal hasn’t been ranked since September 2010.
But this year’s early-season disaster wasn’t entirely Tedford’s fault. His team is inexperienced in a number of key positions.
For instance, Cal had only one returning starter (Brian Schwenke) on the offensive line after right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin went down with a knee injury in the season’s opening game. At that point, it wouldn’t have mattered if Bear Bryant was patrolling the sideline, quarterback Zach Maynard was going to get hit.
The team allowed the most sacks in the NCAA through six games (29) and still nearly upset No. 7 Ohio State (7-0) at the Horseshoe on Sept. 15.
The Bears’ linebacker corps is also green without last year’s Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks, and the team’s wide receiver depth chart didn’t have a single catch beyond Keenan Allen when the season kicked off.
It doesn’t matter who is calling the plays, experience is the only teacher for offensive linemen and linebackers and even the most elite high school athletes face a brutal learning curve in the Pac-12.
Despite the bumps and bruises, though, Cal’s chances of being bowl eligible this season would skyrocket with a win Saturday. The Bears need six wins for eligibility and a Big Game triumph would give them four with four games to play. The road game in Utah next week should be another win, which means the Bears would need to snatch just one more victory against either Washington or No. 2 Oregon at home or No. 8 Oregon State on the road.
A Big Game victory might also help reverse the momentum the Cardinal has been building in this historic rivalry in recent years. Five years ago, Jim Harbaugh was in his first season on the Farm and Cal was considered the next best team in the Pac-10 behind USC. Oh, how things change, and you can’t tell me that some of the seething in Berkeley isn’t the result of watching Stanford compete in back-to-back BCS bowl games while the program has plummeted.
The Cardinal hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown on the road this season, though, and first-year starting quarterback Josh Nunes has shown that he can be rattled in a hostile environment. With such a young team, it would be hard to argue that Tedford wouldn’t deserve a chance to see his kids grow if he can grab a bowl win and beat Stanford in the process.
If the Bears win, they’ll also leapfrog Stanford in the Pac-12 standings and the gulf between the programs will no longer look as wide as the Bay.
But Stanford should win this game by simply overpowering Cal’s offensive line and if they do, Tedford’s chances of returning to the sideline below Tightwad Hill will dwindle fast.
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @PGackle.