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A modern history of Cal against Power 5 non-conference opponents

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It’s gone pretty well!

NCAA Football: Texas at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to think of a matchup where Cal has been historically elite.

Generally, Cal has had a losing record to every Pac-12 rival they’ve played this decade, or at worst drawn even. So running back through history—like we did during the Washington game—is generally not the most fun exercise.

But there is one matchups in which Cal is truly elite, and could bode well for the Bears in their upcoming trip to Mississippi. In the modern era, Cal generally has gotten the best of its big non-conference opponents.

When the California Golden Bears suit up and play a college football team from another Power 5 conference, they have done very well as of late.

Since Jeff Tedford arrived at Cal, the Bears are 20-9 against Power 5 non-conference opponents.

Subtract the two years Cal was god-awful in the Tedford-Dykes transition, and the record improves to 20-6.

Then take away bowl games from that previous metric, and Cal is 17-3. Overall, Cal is 17-6 in our marquee September OOC matchups!!!

Cal has a winning record against every major conference in that time period (SEC 2-1, ACC 4-1, B1G 5-3, Big 12 4-2, Pac-12 1-0*).

Ironically, Cal has lost almost as many regular seasons games to its B opponent than its A opponent (two losses to Nevada, one to San Diego State, one to BYU, one to Utah when they were still MWC). And some of our ‘A’ opponents have hardly been ‘A’s—most of the teams Cal beat on this list went onto not qualify for a bowl game. It is also one of the 10,000 reasons I hate preseason rankings—Cal beats a team that wasn’t even close to being top-25 quality, overinflating our confidence until we face a team that actually is worthy of the mantle.

But hey, you take what you can get.

A quick run down memory lane, and by quick, I mean 2000 words.

2002. Cal 70, Baylor 22 (read the Golden Blogs recap).

Jeff Tedford’s first game at Cal! We’ve written about this one before—our 10th favorite game of the 2000s, but we can sum it up with this stat.

Cal did not score more than 28 points in any game in 2001.

Cal led 35-0 after the first quarter.

2002. Cal 46, Michigan State 22 (read the Golden Blogs recap).

The stakes seemed high going into this one. Sparty was ranked #15 coming into this game, and many Golden Bear fans were conditioned to expect defeat.

Instead? Cal led 25-0 at halftime. Lashuan Ward threw a touchdown to Kyle Boller. Jemeel Powell returned a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown. Cal got a safety! Michigan State did not cross midfield until the 3rd quarter. Michigan State didn’t turn out to be good, but what a moment this victory was.

This also led to one of my favorite locker room chants: “74,000! Disappointed fans!” (check it in the video below).

2003. Kansas State 42, Cal 28.

The Cal defense could not keep up with Darren Sproles and the Wildcat attack, which put up 35 points on its first five drives and took a 21-point lead into the 4th quarter. However, Cal’s passing attack showed its potential, as Reggie Robertson and Aaron Rodgers combined for nearly 400 yards passing. Also, there was a streaker who got nailed by Kansas security girth.

This Kansas State team was legit. The Wildcats would upset #1 Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game to earn a Fiesta Bowl bid.

2003. Cal 31, Illinois 24

Hard to make heads and tails of this schedule. Cal played five non-conference games this year, three of them on the road. Whoever was in this charge of this schedule should be kept far away from the decision-making process. But Cal was 1-3 going into this game, and desperately needed this victory. Vinnie Strang’s punt return touchdown set the tone for a crucial Golden Bear win.

Two major notes: This is Aaron Rodgers’s first career start at Cal; he was a modest 20-37 for 263 yards as he began his two decade quest of terrorizing midwest programs. Cal’s next game came against a tiny little upstart—the #3 USC Trojans. How would Cal have fared against the future co-national champions if they were 1-4?

2003. Cal 52, Virginia Tech 49 (read the Golden Blogs recap here).

The Cheez-it Bowl wasn’t the first time Cal had played at Chase Field. In fact, they went in and played a game that was completely the opposite of the Cheez-it Bowl.

The Bears came in and played a ‘defense optional’ affair, with both teams amassing over 1000 yards of offense and 101 points. Cal scored six touchdowns on six straight possessions, including 28 unanswered points to turn a 21-7 deficit into a 49-35 lead. But the Hokies got a quick score a Deangelo Hall punt return touchdown to set up the Tyler Fredrickson game-winning field goal.

2004. Texas Tech 45, Cal 31.

I don’t want to talk about this nightmare. Cal shouldn’t have been here, and by midway through the second quarter, it was evident the Bears felt the same way. Texas Tech outscored Cal 31-3 in the second and third quarters, with Sonny Cumbie recording 520 passing yards. One bright note: JJ Arrington eclipsed 2000 rushing yards in this game. Craig James still blows.

2005. Cal 35, Illinois 20

Welcome to Justin Forsett’s coming out party. With Marshawn Lynch out and Joe Ayoob struggling, Forsett put up 187 yards and two touchdowns to help rally Cal from a 17-7 halftime deficit. Tim Mixon returned a punt 79 yards. There is absolutely no footage of this game anywhere—it is I believe the last Cal game that was not televised in any fashion. Hooray Pac-10 contracts!

2006. Tennessee 35, Cal 18

After four years of honeymoon, Jeff Tedford finally faced his first major setback on-the-field at Cal. Coming in ranked 9th into the preseason, Tennessee proceeded to fundamentally dismantle the Bears for three straight quarters en route to a 35-0 lead and a year of Pac-10/SEC smack talk. Reportedly, Tennessee stole Cal’s gameplan prior to kickoff, leading to the Vols always being a step ahead of the Bears for most of the game. It brewed the seeds for revenge the following year.

2006. Cal 42, Minnesota 17

Cal came back from that browbeating in Neyland to administer one of their own. Nate Longshore threw four touchdowns and Marshawn Lynch rushed for the other two. After a Gopher kick return made it 14-14 in the second quarter, the Cal defense picked off Minnesota twice and forced three punts.

2006 Holiday Bowl. Cal 45, Texas A&M 10 (read the Golden Blogs recap)

By far one of the most satisfying efforts in Cal history. Aggie fans talked a TON of smack coming into this game, using the Tennessee game as their predictor for an easy rout.

Instead the Aggies got Forsett and Lynch piling up over 110 rushing yards each and Cal going on a 31-0 run after halftime (and 45-3 after the Aggies scored on their opening drive) to close out the most emphatic bowl victory since the 1992 Citrus Bowl. How sweet it was.

2007. Cal 45, Tennessee 31 (read the Golden Blogs recap).

You know all about this game. Tennessee was very good this year and Cal piled on 471 yards of offense, speeding past Volunteer defenders with DeSean Jackson, Justin Forsett, freshman Jahvid Best. The difference in this game was a Zack Follett blind-side sack of Erik Ainge/Worrell Williams scoop-and-score, and the final spectacular DeSean Jackson punt return. Sweet sweet redemption.

This is still probably the loudest I’ve heard Memorial Stadium.

2008. Cal 38, Michigan State 31 (read the Golden Blogs recap)

A bit underrated of a game, as Brian Hoyer kept the Spartans humming enough to stay in range of the Bears all night. It was not only Jahvid Best’s first game as a starter, but Shane Vereen’s first game as a Cal Bear. Best had 111 yards, but it was Vereen’s 81-yard touchdown that stole the show on this game, and proved to be the crucial margin of victory. This was the first game I remember watching Alex Mack and thinking “wow, he could be a ten-year NFL starter if he keeps this up”. Cal and Michigan State combined for nearly 1000 yards of offense, and both teams ended up at 9-4.

2008. Maryland 35, Cal 27 (read the Golden Blogs recap).

With temperatures surpassing 100 degrees on the heat index and the Bears only arriving the night before, Cal was left off-balance, falling behind 28-6 before waking up from their haze and making a too-little, too-late rally. This is still one of the more frustrating Cal losses—proper preparation and better logistics could have probably saved the Bears here.

Talk about a video expressing ten thousand words.

2008 Emerald Bowl. Cal 24, Miami 17 (read the Golden Blogs 12-part gamefilm analysis: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, Part X, Part XI, Part XII).

Best was completing a three-game stretch of pure running dominance, compiled nearly 700 rushing yards. However, the Cal passing attack was struggling to get anything going, with Nate Longshore starting for his final time as a Golden Bear and only completing 10 passes. But his final pass was a touchdown to Anthony Miller for the game-winner after Zach Follett made one last huge sack as a Bear. It was a sweet finish for one of Cal’s most scrutinized athletes.

2009. Cal 52, Maryland 13 (read the Golden Blogs recap)

The Bears fired on all cylinders against a Terps team on the downswing. Kevin Riley threw four touchdown passes, Jahvid Best had a 73 yard touchdown, and Cal compiled over 500 yards of total offense. The Bears had all the making of a team worthy of being ranked 12th in the preseason poll.

2009. Cal 35, Minnesota 21 (read the Golden Blogs recap)

This should probably read Jahvid Best 35, Minnesota 21. With warning signs popping up everywhere Best put up five touchdowns, still a program-record for a running back, Riley had a few clutch throws down the stretch and Cal survived Eric Decker’s best efforts to push Cal to 3-0. All that was left in the month of September was to survive a trip to Autzen and a restructuring Oregon team under Chip Kelly. No problem, right?

2010. Cal 52, Colorado 7 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

The Buffs this season weren’t horrible—they finished 5-7 and registered wins over Georgia and Kansas State. So wins like this were painful to remember because when this Golden Bear team played well, they were DOMINANT. With a healthy Kevin Riley, Cal could probably have upset Oregon and definitely beat Washington and kept the bowl streak going. Instead...argh.

2011. Cal 36, Colorado 33 (OT). (read the Golden Blogs analysis here)

This is technically a Pac-12 out of conference game, since Colorado was not in the Pac when this game was scheduled and not part of the yearly rotation. So Cal played 10 Pac-12 games in 2011, which I believe is still a record! This might also be Cal’s worst win.

A pretty good Cal defense had probably its worst performance of the season, giving up 284 yards to Colorado WR Paul Richardson and nearly 600 yards of offense in total. But Cal survived thanks to great red zone defense. Colorado settled for four field goals, three in the red zone, one of which was in overtime. Then Zach Maynard threw the fade to Keenan Allen.

2011 Holiday Bowl. Texas 21, Cal 10 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

This game was gross. I can only imagine Texas seeing tape of our haphazard Cal offense in gamefilm prep, laughing for a few hours, then figuring out all the ways it could strangle it into submission. This might be the worst performance I’ve ever seen from a Cal offensive line, conceding six sacks and only allowing the Bears to run for SEVEN yards.

2012. Ohio State 35, Cal 28 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

Oh geez, this game. Ohio State went undefeated this year (no bowl due to sanctions) and this unholy mess of a Cal team still had a chance to win in the Horseshoe. Brendan Bigelow had your typical four carry, 160 yard game, with two touchdowns going for 81 and 59 yards. Cal piled up 500+ yards with Keenan Allen, CJ Anderson and Isi Sofele all compiling 70+ yards from scrimmage. But Vincenzo D’Amato missed three field goals, including a controversial 4th-and-1 42-yard try late, and the Buckeyes survived.

2013. Northwestern 44, Cal 30 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

Many remember the fake field goal touchdown between D’Amato and Jackson Bouza. Few remember that Cal actually could have won this one—the Bears and the Wildcats were tied 27-27 in the 4th quarter, and it seemed like Sonny Dykes knew what he was doing. The difference in this game was two Jared Goff tip-picks, both returned for touchdowns.

2013. Ohio State 52, Cal 34 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

Ohio State jumped out to a 21-0 lead in about six minutes (two on Devin Smith blasting past the poor Cal secondary) and never looked back. Cal actually played fairly well after that, but never had a real chance after that start. Jared Goff threw three touchdowns and nearly 400 yards, but needed over 50 attempts again (he threw over 60 in his first game against Northwestern).

2014. Cal 31, Northwestern 24 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

This would be a trend of Sonny Dykes’s most successful efforts with the Bears—Cal would take a big lead, only to see the opposition dent into it in record time. In this case, Cal built a 31-7 lead early 3rd quarter behind second-year quarterback Jared Goff, only to see that lead evaporate midway through the 4th quarter. But the Bears hung on, partly in thanks to Luke Rubenzer’s willingness to run the Wildcat and the Cal WR corps of Kenny Lawler, Darius Powe and Trevor Davis stepping up with big catches.

2015. Cal 45, Texas 44 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

This Cal game was an experience. Texas jumping out on an unprepared Golden Bear defense to take a 24-14 lead, then Cal scoring 31 unanswered to take a 21-point lead, only to proceed to nearly blow all of it, followed by Texas missing the game-tying extra point, followed by the defining Jared Goff GIF...what a roller coaster. Khalfani Muhammad and Vic Enwere compiled over 200 yards rushing and Kenny Lawler had two huge touchdowns.

2016. Cal 50, Texas 43 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

Texas is back! To being Bear Territory! After beating Notre Dame, the Longhorn hype was strong, only for the Bears to deflate it with a #drop50. So much happened in this game—68 points were racked up in a two hour first half, Davis Webb threw for 400 yards and four scores, Chad Hansen packed up almost 200 yards and threw horns down, Vic Enwere fumbled-away the game-clinching touchdown. Cal squandered away all that goodwill from a big Texas win a week later by giving up 51 to Arizona State.

2017. Cal 35, North Carolina 30 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

Justin Wilcox’s first game at Cal seems like a strange one, because Cal had a functional passing attack that yield long plays! Ross Bowers threw for over 300 yards and four touchdowns, including a 67-yard scamper by Vic Wharton and a 54-yard catch by Patrick Laird. After falling behind 17-7, Cal outscored North Carolina 28-7 in the subsequent 30 minutes to land a huge win in Chapel Hill.

2017. Cal 27, Ole Miss 16 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

Ole Miss entirely outplayed Cal in the first half with a pair of 70+ yard touchdowns, but only nursed a 9-point lead. The Cal defense took control in the second half and the Bears offense did just enough, outscoring Ole Miss 20-0 in the second half and getting the crucial pick-six to seal matters.

2018. Cal 24, North Carolina 17 (read the Golden Blogs analysis).

See if this sounds familiar. Cal takes a 21 point lead in the second half, then bottles up, gives up two late scores, and makes an easy win seem not-so-easy. Hopefully North Texas in 2019 is slightly better than the Tar Heels of 2018, which went 2-9.

2018 Cheez-it Bowl. TCU 10, Cal 7, overtime.

There will be a time in my life when I’m appropriately ready to discuss the experience that was the 2018 Cheez-it Bowl. Today is not that day.