In the polls that matter most, Stanford is rated No. 2 and California is No. 4. So says the 2015 Academic Ranking of World Universities, a humbling reminder that we should be, um, embarrassed to fixate on football within these global centers of superior academia. Next time the ESPN circus arrives on either campus, the nerds must tie up Lee Corso and make him wear his mascot head until he explains an algorithm and how to split atoms.
Yet unless the schools stop competing in sports — and I’m guessing that won’t happen with dueling legacies of John Elway, Tiger Woods, Andrew Luck and Julie Foudy on one side and Aaron Rodgers, Natalie Coughlin, Jason Kidd and Missy Franklin on the other — Stanford and Cal will be compared on autumn fields with no less fervor than who has the better Nobel laureates. At present, it seems our eyeballs are cast excitedly toward Berkeley, and not so much toward The Farm. One week doesn’t necessarily define a season, not after Ohio State lost its first game last year and won a national championship. Still, when Cal amasses 73 points in its opener and could have gone for 100 while Stanford scores six points in its opener and could have been shut out, two early conclusions are fair.
’Round here, as Cal fan and crooner Adam Duritz might sing, this looks like the year of Sonny Dykes and Jared Goff.
And down there, in Palo Alto, a much-too-conservative David Shaw is blaming the media.
“Tell me what we didn’t run, and I’ll get it in next week’s game plan,” said Shaw, defending the offensive playcalling after a putrid 16-6 loss at Northwestern.
Advice, he wants? Try something, anything, everything.
In what was a humbling weekend for the Pac-12 conference, which saw its better-than-the-SEC hype machine discombobulated by five losses, Cal was a shining light. Goff continued to show why he could be the first quarterback taken in the 2016 NFL draft, throwing for 309 yards and three touchdown passes in a first-half spectacle almost as fun as the dancing, prancing Grambling State band. Mel Kiper Jr. may be more ridiculed for his never-changing hair than lauded for his scouting skills, but as long as he has Goff near the top of his Big Board, he’ll be Cal’s best friend in Heisman Trophy chatter. In Dykes’ passing-fool spread offense, we know the monster numbers will come all season. If the Golden Bears have any kind of defense, they could start 5-0 before they answer who they are in a murderous stretch: at Utah, at UCLA, at home against USC, at Oregon.
That’s all Cal wants — relevance — after two rough years in which Dykes went 6-18, manuevered through an academic mess left by Jeff Tedford, saw Rodgers repel from the program after Tedford’s firing, had a player die after an offseason workout, suffered defections and tried to explain it all with a Texas twang that seemed misplaced in the Bay Area. No one will care what the coach sounds like if he reaches a respectable bowl and positions Goff for a seat in New York on a Saturday night in December.
“It’s about improving every day,” Dykes said. “Obviously, an improvement for us would be getting to a bowl game and having a chance to compete for the conference championship. We want to make sure the games we play in late November and December are meaningful.”
With Goff finely tuned to be as efficient as he is explosive in Dykes’ system, relevance has returned to Memorial Stadium. He isn’t one to self-promote and, in all likelihood, won’t be showing up on Instagram with a model in one hand and a tequila bottle in the other. Humility only will help him with Heisman voters tired of Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston. Goff’s ears won’t let him hear the buzz.
“Through one, out the other,” he said. “I’m very flattered by it and appreciative of it, but at the same time, I’m not concerned with any of it. I’m focused on getting better every day. Nothing has changed in my life. I’ve got to win games and let that other stuff take care of itself.”
As Dykes said: “That’s the great thing about Jared — he doesn’t care. He loves Cal, he loves his teammates, and he’s much more concerned with helping our program than he is putting up numbers or help improving his draft stock or any of that kind of stuff.”
His teammates aren’t nearly as restrained. “If everybody does their job, I don’t think there’s a team that can really stop us,” receiver Bryce Treggs said. “We believe if everyone goes out and does their job, then the sky is the limit for us.”
That’s what they used to say not long ago at Stanford. Jim Harbaugh cleaned up the program and Shaw inherited the righted ship, with only six teams winning more games nationally than the Cardinal’s 54 victories since 2010. Coupled with a 99 percent graduation rate under Shaw, with majors that aren’t all pronounceable, Stanford became a model for melding football results with high academia.
Until the results became inconsistent, that is. Last season was supposed to be an aberration, a 5-5 start filled with blame-assigning by a stout defense toward a sometimes punchless offense. A three-game, year-ending winning streak was expected to build a new bridge to glory, yet Stanford’s offense couldn’t have been more miserable in the opener. Against a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first collegiate start, the Cardinal looked unprepared, unfocused and asleep for the 9 a.m. PT kickoff.
“We didn’t convert third downs, killed ourselves with penalties, self-inflicted wounds,” said quarterback Kevin Hogan, whose inconsistency continues to be baffling. “Can’t do it. We had opportunities and didn’t take advantage.’’
So impressed was linebacker Blake Martinez with the untested enemy QB, Clayton Thorsen, he said, “He was commanding the offense well and was keeping that pace going. They never stopped that quick offense, and it was kind of cool to see that he was able to be doing that in his first game.”
Kind of cool? I know Stanford players are expected to be gentlemen, but when some commentators were picking them to reach the College Football Playoff and even win the national title (ESPN’s Desmond Howard should agree to be The Tree for a week), you don’t compliment the other guys.
I like the attitude of offensive guard Joshua Garnett, who wants a pound of flesh. “We’re a power football team. What we want to do is really like a big boxing analogy — we want to kill the body and the head will follow, throwing body blows,” he said. “We want most of their guys to go to the coaches and say, ‘Hey man, we don’t want any more.’ We want to keep throwing those body blows until we can really run the ball downhill.”
But while Stanford is said to have an electric back in Christian McCaffrey, the running game managed only 3.1 yards per carry in an offense that converted 3 of 15 first downs. Shaw now has lost five of his last 10 games after qualifying three straight years for what then was known as the Bowl Championship Series. Does this qualify as a crisis? It would at USC or Oregon, the conference gold standards. The news grew worse Tuesday, when starting defensive lineman Harrison Phillips was lost for the season with a torn knee ligament. Like the 49ers, Stanford seems to miss what Harbaugh brought — sass, audacity and what he once said of USC and Pete Carroll: “We bow to no man. We bow to no program here at Stanford University.”
Just as the Cardinal seems to have lost its way, so has the Pac-12. Stanford and Arizona State were the two nationally ranked teams among the five league losers. Oregon, with new quarterback Vernon Adams, relinquished 42 points at home to Adams’ former team, Eastern Washington. You will be hearing much about Josh “Chosen” Rosen, the UCLA quarterback who crashed the national scene in his first start and is gunning to be the first true freshman to win the Heisman. You also know about Cody Kessler, the USC quarterback.
But the big headline Tuesday was this: “SEC rules! Conference sets record with 10 teams in AP Top 25.”
Oh, well. The Pac-12 always has the Academic Ranking of World Universities.
And Jared Goff.