As the 2009 regular season wound down, it became clear that the bowl-game destinations for many Pac-10 teams would not be decided until the last games of the year. All the Cal football team could do was concentrate on its own performance. So that's what it has done. Coach Jeff Tedford said the eyes-inward strategy has worked for the most part, helping his team climb above .500 in the conference race.
"I'm really proud of the effort up until now," Tedford said. "But again, we still need to finish strong, and that's going to be the whole focus." Finishing strong will be an emphasis for the Bears off the field as well. Indeed, as the players prepare for the postseason of college football, they will also be in the midst of a different postseason-an academic one that takes place at library desks and in classrooms across UC Berkeley. It's more commonly known as finals week. Many players will likely use the downtime they are provided to catch up on their studies before the exams, which begin Saturday and continue through Dec. 19. Until this past weekend, they were also trying to ready themselves for the multiple scenarios that could have played out in the conference race.
Tedford, for example, had laid out multiple calendars, knowing that Cal could end up playing as early as Dec. 22 in the Las Vegas Bowl or as late as Dec. 31 in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. He was well aware that the team's bowl bid would likely dictate its practice schedule during an already hectic week on campus. Senior fullback Brian Holley, who is set to graduate with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, is focusing on cognitive science and, until recently, was trying to wrap his head around an unusually complicated year in the conference standings.
"We've been at the top of the Pac-10, we've been at the bottom of the Pac-10," Holley said. "Rankings and standings are really out of our control. The only thing we can do is go out there and win ball games."
Still, it probably won't be easy for the Bears to give all of their attention to the last game of their season until finals week is completely over. Even with classes drawing to a close, they were forced to prepare for a number of different bowl-game situations. Entering its regular-season finale against Washington, Cal knew it would be eligible for the postseason regardless of this past Saturday's outcome at Husky Stadium in Seattle. After all, the Bears had responded from a miserable start to Pac-10 play-a two-game skid during which they were blown out by Oregon and USC-and had given themselves a chance to finish tied for second place in the conference. Even without running back Jahvid Best, the team was able to salvage a campaign that seemed like it was going to spiral downward after those two humbling defeats.
The cramped cluster of Pac-10 foes meant that Tedford's squad had no idea where it would be playing at the end of December. That unknown was mostly due to the increased parity that has characterized the conference this year, as several teams, including Cal, jostled for position in the top half of the standings.
Now that the bowl schedule is set in stone, life is a little simpler for the Bears. But there's still a lot of work ahead, as the players must tend to their end-of-semester tasks away from the gridiron while the coaching staff tries to capitalize on as many recruiting opportunities as it can. "There's a lot to balance right now," Tedford said. "The kids start finals here in a week, so there's a lot going on."