HOW'S THIS for ironic? As bitter dark as the dismal days were for Stanford and its fans after the Cardinal suffered a humiliating loss to UC Davis on Sept. 17, Stanford, with a win over Cal in the Big Game on Saturday, could conceivably jump first in line to play in the Sun Bowl. Talk about lifting a black cloud.
"The lessons we learned from that Davis game about who we can count on, who are the guys on the team that willing to fight we've used to our advantage," Stanford quarterback Trent Edwards said yesterday at a Big Game Luncheon. "I'm not really amazed." He should be amazed. When the Cardinal lost consecutive home games to UC Davis and Oregon, there did not appear any scenario in which Stanford would wind up in any bowl game this season, much less the Sun Bowl, which has dibs on the third-place team in the Pac-10. Yet, by beating the Bears, the Cardinal would become bowl eligible by virtue of their sixth win and finish in sole possession of fourth place in the league standings. When there's another scenario that could set Stanford in the Sun Bowl. If top-ranked USC and 10th-ranked Oregon win their remaining games, the Trojans will play in the Rose Bowl and Oregon, with only one loss (to USC), could receive an invitation to a Bowl Championship Series game and might play Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. That would mean third-place UCLA would be bumped up to be the Pac-10 representative in the Holiday Bowl, promoting the Pac-10's fourth-place team to play in the Sun Bowl at El Paso, Texas on Dec. 30. If Stanford gets the nod, it would play the fifth-place Big Ten Conference team, which might be Minnesota, Northwestern or Wisconsin. However, Cal, with a win over Stanford on Saturday, would tie the Cardinal with a 4-4 record in conference play. The Bears could then legitimately lay claim to the Sun Bowl, which would be quite a coupe for Cal, given the lame records of its opponents this year. The combined record of the six teams the Bears have beaten this season is a shoddy 12-49. Another bowl possibility for the Bears and Cardinal is playing in the Insight Bowl in Phoenix on Dec. 27. That might present a more intriguing matchup for the Cardinal because one prospective opponent for Stanford might be Pittsburgh, where Cardinal coach Walt Harris coached the previous eight seasons. Cal could play in the Insight Bowl against Rutgers, the only team the 1-10 Bears beat in the dreadful 2001 season when Tom Holmoe was fired and replaced by Jeff Tedford.
Holmoe is now an associate athletic director at Brigham Young. If Cal isn't invited to the Sun Bowl or Insight Bowl, the Bears could wind up in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 22 playing, possibly, BYU. Oh, can't you just feel all the irony dripping like icing off a holiday cake? Stanford stands to gain more than Cal by winning Saturday's Big Game. It would be the final Big Game played in Stanford Stadium as we know it (before it's renovated after the Notre Dame game on Nov. 26). Plus it would be the final Big Game for outgoing Stanford athletic director Ted Leland, who was visibly livid after the Cardinal lost 20-17 to UC Davis on the last play of the game.
"We intercepted on the second to last play of the game and the refs blew the call and we would have won the game," Leland said yesterday. "If we had (television) replay we would have won the game." But, by losing to UC Davis, the Cardinal now possess the ultimate trump card when they play Cal. Bears fans, as well as their coaches and players, probably had a good laugh over Stanford's loss to Davis.
"Wow. It was just kind of hard to believe," Cal fullback Chris Manderino recalled yesterday. "My reaction? Honestly? I didn't play in the game," said Cal defensive back Donnie McCleskey. "It's not relevant to me. I'm not going to say I'm sorry."
But what if the Bears, in the same season, lose to the Cardinal who lost to UC Davis? That would be sorry for Cal and lift Stanford's spirits. "Davis is a pretty good football school and we, at Stanford, have had a tradition of playing stinkers," Leland said. "We don't like it. I wish we didn't. The reality is we've tended to play down to our opposition at times and play up to our opposition at times."
So how does an up-and-down Cal team fit into that category? The Bears have lost four of their last five games. But Cal has won the last three Big Games, averaging 33 points a game. "The last two years Cal tried to give us the game (via turnovers) and we wouldn't take it," Leland said. "I'm hoping now that if they try to give us the game, we'll accept it." Along with, quite possibly, an invitation to the Sun Bowl.