Passion is flowing in the Bay Area, and Cal fans are out in full force. The Big Game is here (a month early, but here nonetheless), and the California Golden Bears can emphatically turn their season around with a big win over archrivals Stanford Cardinal.
What is probably ominously hanging over the game is the fate of Cal's head coach if the Bears can't come out on top.
For Jeff Tedford, the Big Game has generally been good to him. He came to Cal with the Bears off a seven game losing streak to Stanford. But then he rolled off seven wins in eight seasons to quickly dispel any memories of that miserable streak. The Bears generally won by an average of three touchdowns and took care of business on every occasion. Those were the good times to be a Cal fan.
But of course, as time goes by, some things change. And after a 3-4 start to the season, Tedford's tenure at Cal beyond this season could very well rest on whether he can bring the Axe back to Berkeley tomorrow.
It's gotten to the point where a bowl-less season for California could spell the end for Tedford. And right now the Bears hang on the precipice. A loss to Stanford would mean Cal would have to upset Oregon or Oregon State to end the season to become bowl-eligible at the very least (and Utah in Salt Lake City and Washington at home won't be anything easy). That is a road that would seem to ensure that Cal football would end their decade with their most successful coach of the modern era.
Right now, Tedford seems to be treading .500 for the third straight season, which is not an encouraging sign for his future. With Oregon ascendant, USC still a step ahead of them, and Washington and Oregon State still generally holding the upper hand, it doesn't leave Tedford much wiggle room against anyone.
That leaves the Big Game as the barometer of success for the Bears, and there hasn't been much success lately in that department either. Tedford has lost his last two games to Stanford. Granted, both those games came against Andrew Luck, but this time it's Josh Nunes out there, and to put it mildly, Josh Nunes is not Andrew Luck. Nor is the Stanford offensive line the unstoppable wrecking ball it once was. The Cal defense isn't what you'd call worldbeating, but they should have the personnel that can try and match up and hold things down.
That leaves the Bears relying on a question that has become all too predictable in the Tedford era: Do they have the quarterback that can lead them over an elite defense? Zach Maynard performed well last year, but this Stanford defense is almost undoubtedly better in every facet, and they have actually been the more productive unit on the field. An error-free game from Maynard and the Bears is critical, because that Stanford defense will not concede an inch, and will try to force mistakes on every play.
So far throughout his tenure, anytime Cal meets a defense that gives them trouble from the opening snap, it's hard for them to score points, and ultimately close to impossible to pull out the victory. In general, when Tedford plays a team that is better than them on paper (and it's not quite clear how much better Stanford is compared to Cal, but for now they are definitely considered better), they come up short. That moniker has to end soon if he plans on still being the head coach of the Bears for the long-term.
There is no real excuse for Tedford not to win tomorrow. Not with Luck and Harbaugh gone. Not with Nunes and a pretty pedestrian offense lining up. Not with two Big Game losses in a row. Not being at home in Memorial in front of what figures to be a raucous crowd. Not with .500, bowl eligibility, and the rest of the season on the line.
There's too much at stake for Cal to trip up, too much at stake for Tedford to come out and lay another egg against the rivals from across the Bay. The season's already enough of a disappointment so far--dropping this game would mean pretty much failure for the season. The pressure is all ramped up, and Tedford and the Bears have to come up with their best performance of the season if they want to come up with victory.
No more excuses for Tedford. They've all been used up. Barring a miraculous turnaround and winning out, getting the Axe back for Berkeley is the only thing he could do to salvage the season. If he can't put together a win against the Cardinal today, this is where his time as the leader of Cal football should end.