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Stanford Cardinal 2015 preview: Can Cal finally take the Axe back?

How are the Stanford Cardinal shaping up for this upcoming football season? How do the California Golden Bears matchup with their nemesis? Get the scoop on the Cardinal in this preview of The Big Game as the Bears look to reclaim the Stanford Axe.

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

California vs. Stanford is always the most highly anticipated game on Cal's football schedule. USC and UCLA are big games, but this is THE Big Game and it means more than any other. This year in particular is a massive one for the Bears as it pertains to our biggest rival. Here's why: Five. Straight. Losses.

Recent history of The Big Game

Cal has lost five consecutive games to Stanford from 2010-2014, and it has been ugly for the Bears over that stretch.

  • 2010: Stanford 48-14 California
  • 2011: California 28-31 Stanford
  • 2012: Stanford 21-3 California
  • 2013: California 13-63 Stanford
  • 2014: Stanford 38-17 California

To put Stanford's current run in perspective let's take a look at other winning streaks during the storied history of The Big Game.

  • Stanford: Seven, 1995-2001
  • Stanford: Six, 1961-1966
  • California: Five, 1919-1923 and 2002-2006

If the Bears do not find a way to defeat the Cardinal this season, then Stanford will have surpassed our best winning streak once again and will have a legitimate chance at setting The Big Game record winning streak in the coming years.

Stanford Defense

Jared Goff and the Bear-Raid offense will have to figure out a way to put points on the board against Lance Anderson's always reliable Cardinal defense. The Cardinal defense (and some guy named Luck) is the pillar from which their recent success has been built, but it enters this season with more questions than usual.

No Cardinal position group is facing as much change as the defensive backfield, which has now lost all of its 2014 starters in the wake of safety Zach Hoffpauir's decision to sign a minor league contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The burden of replacing the departed starters will fall primarily on younger players.

Sophomore Terrence Alexander saw playing time as a freshman last season and will be expected to start alongside senior cornerback Ronnie Harris, while redshirt freshman Alijah Holder, who caught head coach David Shaw's attention by forcing a fumble and breaking up a few passes during the Spring Game, will also be expected to contribute significantly at cornerback. Senior Kodi Whitfield will likely be joined by junior Dallas Lloyd as the starting safety duo for the Cardinal. Both Whitfield and Lloyd transitioned from offense to defense prior to the 2014 season.

The defensive line is also facing an overhaul with senior defensive tackle Aziz Shittu possessing the most experience of the group. At defensive end the Cardinal will look to sophomore Harrison Phillips, redshirt freshman Solomon Thomas, and juniors Jordan Watkins and Nate Lohn to fill out the rest of the starting lineup and provide depth. Cal transfer (yes, you read that correctly) Brennan Scarlett could provide some much needed experience and pass-rushing capabilities at defensive end if he can stay healthy.

The position group with the fewest question marks entering the season is the linebacking corps, led by last season's leading tackler Blake Martinez at inside-linebacker, while Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Anderson will play outside-linebacker. Sophomore linebacker Joey Alfieri is a player to watch as well after his impressive performance at Stanford's Spring Game.

Back to Scarlett transferring from Cal to Stanford ... maybe he volunteered to be part of a field study on how those unfortunate souls on ‘The Farm' live? Or maybe he transferred to Furd for their rabid fanbase? With passion rivaled only by SEC fans, Furd fans frequently pack the stands like you would expect those of a successful football program to do. Wait, what? They don't pack the stands? Oh, ok. Well, any Cal fans looking to make the trip to Palo Alto probably won't face much of a fight for tickets, then.

Stanford Offense

Several Cardinal starters return on the offensive side of the ball, including four offensive lineman. There's an Andrus Peat-sized hole at left tackle since the behemoth was drafted in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, which is expected to be filled by senior Kyle Murphy, last season's starting right tackle. As always, the Cardinal have plenty of blue-chip offensive lineman to choose from at right tackle, including sophomore Casey Tucker, rivals' number 5 tackle from the 2014 recruiting class.

Kevin Hogan returns for his senior season as the starting quarterback and sophomore sensation Christian McCaffrey will join him in the backfield. McCaffrey averaged 7.1 yards per carry last season in a limited role, but will be very dangerous as the focal point of the Cardinal attack this season. Hogan misfired during the middle of last season when he performed poorly in losses against Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and Utah before playing extremely well during the final three games. McCaffrey and Barry Sanders aren't typical Stanford bruisers and will be used to stretch defenses side-to-side. Look for a more creative than usual Stanford rushing attack this season.

One of the most important returnees for Stanford is head coach David Shaw, as he continues to spurn NFL* interest. This means we have another season of Stanford fans fretting about Shaw's play-calling to look forward to. Seriously, do a Google search for "David Shaw playcalling" and there is no shortage of critical columns.

*Speaking of the NFL, for all the recent success in the Stanford program, Cal still had more players than Stanford on opening day NFL rosters last season. While the Cardinal closed the gap during the 2015 NFL Draft, Cal does have Jared Goff, one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft.

2015 Outlook

With the Stanford defense entering the 2015 season with more uncertainty than usual and the offense changing its philosophy a bit, the Bears have a legitimate shot at snapping the losing streak. The Cal wide receivers have tons of experience and could be facing a Stanford secondary short on experience. If Goff, Daniel Lasco, Stephen Anderson, Bryce Treggs, Trevor Davis and Kenny Lawler can light up the scoreboard then I like Cal's chances in this game.

I'm not saying the Bears should be favored, especially since this is a road game, but the Bears are equipped on the offensive side of the ball to put the Cardinal under pressure. If the Bears can score points early, then the Cardinal would potentially have to play catch-up, which they are not equipped to do. As always, a large portion of whether or not the Bears stand a chance will rest on the defense.

The Cal defense should have more depth than last season, but is that really saying much? The optimism here is that for the first time in a while the Stanford defense, at least on paper, does not appear to be a 100 percent certainty to be the best in the Pac-12. If Goff has the type of season he is capable of then the Bears could very easily be looking at his final year as the starting quarterback. If that is the case, then the Bears must stop the losing streak this season.

This season appears to be the best chance Cal has had to beat Stanford in a while, that point is debatable at least. What is not debatable, though, is that no matter what happens in this Big Game or any in the future, Cal will forever have made THE Play in the history of the rivalry.

Go Bears! Beat Furd!