CGB fan favorite Jon Wilner has his usual crank column out. But this time there is a kernel of truth to what he writes.
In the short term, Stanford has more to lose. To get this close to the postseason and whiff, just two years after going 1-11, would be deeply disappointing.
But a loss to Cal wouldn’t alter the perception, both within the Bay Area and without, that Stanford is a program on the rise.
A loss wouldn’t change the program’s arc, wouldn’t affect recruiting – a stellar class is all lined up and waiting for signing day – or hinder fundraising.
But a second consecutive defeat to Stanford would exact a heavy toll on Cal’s reputation and quite possibly its psyche.
It would greatly undermine the perception locally that the Bears have the superior program and make Coach Jeff Tedford 0-2 against Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh.
It would lay waste to any lasting notion that they have the No. 2 program in the Pac-10.
And it would bolster sentiment within league circles – and on recruiting trails — that the program has reached a plateau.
Hired after the 2001 season, Tedford needed just two years to transform the Bears from gutter dweller into the primary challenger to USC’s dominance.
The Bears won 10 games and finished second to the Trojans in 2004, and they tied USC for the conference title in 2006.
A few months later, worried about overtures from the NFL, Cal gave Tedford a contract extension worth nearly $2 million per season.
But the past two years have not gone as Old and Young Blues hoped.
Last year, after rising to No. 2 in the nation, Cal was waylayed by a lack of leadership from its upperclassmen and its head coach, who later admitted to being so involved in watching film that he failed to recognize attitude problems.
The Bears dropped six of their final seven and finished tied for seventh in the conference … with Stanford.
This year, the Bears started 4-1 and once again entered fade mode. They’ve dropped three of their past five, have little chance to reach a top-tier bowl game and, with a loss Saturday, would most likely finish tied for fifth … with Stanford.
But the repercussions would not end there.
A loss would deepen their plunge from No. 2 dog to the middle of the Pac: In the past two seasons, Cal has seven league wins – fewer than everyone save Stanford and the Washington schools.
A loss would add to their growing reputation as slow finisher: In the past four Novembers, Cal is 4-8.
And a loss could impact recruiting: Cal’s last four classes have been ranked (in order) No. 9, 23, 12 and 32 by scout.com. (This year’s group isn’t even in the top 50, although it’s still very early.)
But more than affecting Cal’s reputation in the Pac-10 and the Bay Area, a loss could damage Cal’s sense of self.
The ’07 meltdown took a heavy emotional toll on the players and coaches, and they vowed to avoid another collapse.
Although their chemistry is much improved this fall, how would they handle another disappointing season, another losing November and another defeat to a Stanford program they dominated as recently as two years ago?
Now obviously, in the short-term, the Bears do not lose much if they fall on Saturday except the Axe. The 'Furd will be desperate for a bowl berth that they've let slip through their fingers twice (at UCLA and at Oregon, two games they were leading in the final two minutes). In all reality, the Cardinal have all the qualities of an up-and-coming 7-4 squad. So this is a pretty good team and they will give Cal all they've got. A win is bigger for them, so they can go to Hawaii or something.
But the long-term picture that Wilner paints is very realistic. Ever since the Oregon win last year, the Cal football program has slid from the national eye, seemingly imploding from the expectations of too much, too soon. Three years the Bears have had a chance at the national ranks and the BCS. Three years they have fallen short, once spectacularly fallen short. As much as we'd like to ignore the past, our players and our future recruits can't. Perception might not be reality, but it is what it is.
A loss in The Big Game to a mediocre 'Furd team would certainly give the Cardinal the advantage in local recruiting. Remember a lot of local recruits will be attending on Saturday, including the much sought-after Devon Kennard. Win and we can hopefully sign up the new young batch of talent. Lose and we could be scrapping for what's left in the barrel.
And Harbaugh, who has been in the public eye since the upset in the Coliseum, would have even more leverage to build up a 'Furd team that already can tap the national recruiting base that the private school enjoys. Already seven 4 star and eight 3 star recruits have signed up. A bowl berth could ensure that they have a top 10 recruiting class for the first time since God knows when. They will be a fearsome challenge the next few years, and we can only hope Tedford and co. are ready to face it.
So this Big Game is really big. But more than just the Axe is at stake. Do you agree?