One of these years, the Big Game will revert to the competitive rivalry it once was, but not this year. Cal will win again, probably by a lopsided margin.
The Big Game has had a couple of strange stretches over the last 12 years. First, Tyrone Willingham reeled off seven straight wins, though that should come with an asterisk because he had Tom Holmoe on the other sideline for six of those wins — the first year as a coordinator of nearly the worst defense in the country and the last five as an equally inept head coach.
Jeff Tedford hasn’t needed so much help, but he, too, has faced weak coaches, Buddy Teevens for three years, Walt Harris for two.
Current Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh is a clear cut above his predecessors. Teevens was simply overmatched on the top level of collegiate play. Harris, who had been a good coach elsewhere, was overwhelmed by the lack of talent and the restrictive admissions policy at Stanford.
Harbaugh has the enthusiasm and knowledge, both as an NFL quarterback and as a coach on a lower level, to eventually bring the Cardinal back — if he gets help from the admissions department, as I’ve heard he will. Stanford has always had by far the highest admissions standards for athletes in the Pac-10 Conference, but they’ve been even higher lately. For the school to have a competitive football team, those standards must be relaxed some.
The group that Harbaugh inherited lacked both overall quality and depth. Injuries have mounted as the season progressed and the team is at a low ebb now, the euphoria of the stunning upset over Southern Cal long gone. Saturday’s game with Notre Dame was almost comical, asboth teams tried to give the game away. In the end, Notre Dame finally seized it for only its third win of the season.
Meanwhile, the Bears spent what would have been a week off in practice working hard, after the listless effort against Washington, the worst game I have seen from a Tedford-coached team at Cal.
You will hear all week that hoary old chestnut that anything can happen in the Big Game, but in fact, upsets are less common in this rivalry than in college football as a whole. You have to go back to Joe Kapp’s last year, 1986, when the 1-9 Bears beat the 7-2 Cardinal for an upset approaching Stanford’s win over USC or the Appalachian State shocker of Michigan this year.
That kind of upset won’t happen Saturday. This has been a hugely disappointing season for the Bears, after unrealistic expectations fueled by writers such as myself and the early 5-0 start, but the fact remains that the Bears have many more playmakers than Stanford.
Cal has also played much better throughout the season. The only common opponent against whom the Cardinal did better was USC, which beat the Bears in a close game. Otherwise, Cal beat Oregon and Washington State, both of whom beat Stanford, and lost close games to UCLA, Arizona State and Oregon State, teams which beat Stanford by lopsided margins.
The Bears also have more incentive because they’re playing to partially atone for their season and to get into a bowl game. The only thing Stanford has to look forward to is probably selling out its undersized new stadium.
Stanford (3-8, 2-6) vs. Cal (6-5, 3-5)
WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m.
WHERE: Stanford Stadium
RADIO: KTCT (1050 AM), KGO (810 AM)