On a rainy afternoon in Berkeley, suddenly all was right with the world of college football.
In recent months much has been written, including in this space, about all that is wrong with college football. Too much commercialism, skyrocketing coaching salaries, disgraceful off-the-field behavior (at Baylor and elsewhere), phantom courses, low graduation rates, and pursuit of the TV dollar at the expense of classroom concerns and consideration for the average fan, to name a few.
All that is true, but somehow the Big Game reminded us of all that is good. Here were two great academic institutions, playing a game on a Saturday afternoon (2:30 starting time!), battling it out in the rain before 50,000 die-hard fans, raucous student rooting sections and marching bands (well, make that marching “band”).
To those of us in the Bay Area, the tradition of the Big Game is second to none, because these institutions really do have “student” athletes, and they really do respect each other. That was evident in the comments made throughout the week not only by head coaches David Shaw and Sonny Dykes, but also by the players from both teams. It was also evident in the quality of play, the all-out effort by both teams, the behavior of the fans, and the obvious significance that winning the game and retaining the Stanford Axe had for the Cardinal players.
A few more random thoughts about Stanford, Cal and the Big Game.
Christian McCaffrey: With his scintillating, 284-yard rushing performance Saturday, McCaffrey reminded everyone—including lots of Heisman voters—that he really is the best college football player in the country. Because of a slow start and mid-season injury, it’s probably too late for him to win the Heisman this year, but McCaffrey might yet earn an invitation to the awards ceremony in New York with another big game against Rice in the regular season finale Saturday. Ironically, if Stanford had as many day games last year as it has had this year, giving East Coast voters a chance to view his exploits, Christian might’ve won the 2015 award in a landslide.
Offense re-discovered: McCaffrey’s re-emergence, the insertion of Keller Chryst as starting quarterback, the coalescence of a young offensive line, and the return of injured fullback Daniel Marx has re-energized the Stanford offense. After averaging only 19 points per game through the first seven weeks of the season, the Cardinal has scored 34, 26, 52 and 45 in its last four games.
Defense required: Cal’s “Bear Raid” offense is very impressive. Davis Webb and his receivers are fun to watch. But Cal is going nowhere as a team until it finds a defense. You can’t give up 45 points per game and hope to contend in the Pac-12. Mike Leach (Sonny Dykes’ mentor) employs the same offense at WSU, but the reason his Cougars are 7-1 in league play this year is that they have learned how to play decent defense.
Class Acts: We lost two fine head coaches and quality gentlemen in recent months with the passing of former Stanford coach Denny Green and former Cal coach Roger Theder. Denny had three stints at Stanford—as running backs coach under Bill Walsh in 1977-78, offensive coordinator under Paul Wiggin in 1980, and head coach from 1989-91, before moving on to the pros. He was 16-18 overall, including a win over top-ranked Notre Dame and an appearance in the Aloha Bowl, and 3-0 in the Big Game. Roger was an assistant at Stanford from 1968-71 under John Ralston and played a major role on back-to-back Rose Bowl teams, served as an assistant at Cal under Mike White, before taking over as head coach from 1978-81. He was 18-27 overall, including an appearance in the Garden State Bowl, and 2-2 in Big Games. They’ll both be missed.
Class Acts 2: The broadcast booth at Memorial Stadium was renamed last week in honor of longtime Cal play-by-play man Joe Starkey, best known for his incredible call of “The Play.” A few years back, Stanford bestowed the same honor on the legendary Bob Murphy, who served as SID on the Farm and called football and basketball for many years. Very fitting. These two names will forever be linked to Cal and Stanford as the voices of their respective football teams.
Ranking confusion: This week’s AP rankings list USC, with an 8-3 record, at No. 12, and Stanford, with an 8-3 record…nowhere to be seen. The Cardinal is first among “others receiving votes,” so that would translate to No. 26. Really? Same records, all of Stanford’s losses were to ranked teams (Washington, Colorado and WSU), and Stanford defeated USC decisively, 27-10, early in the year. Yes, the Trojans are a much better team since Sam Darnold took over at quarterback, but Stanford is also much better with a healthy Christian McCaffrey and Keller Chryst at QB. To add insult to injury, two other Pac-12 teams with 8-3 records were also ranked in the AP poll—Utah, which has a loss to Cal, at No. 21, and WSU, which has a loss to Eastern Washington, at 23. Go figure.
Elsewhere, here are the week’s biggest stories in college football.
Pac-12 Races: No one would’ve predicted this at the start of the season, but two unlikely matchups will decide the Pac-12 divisional titles. The North Division championship will be on the line Friday in Pullman in the Apple Cup clash between Washington and Washington State. Both teams have 7-1 records in conference play, so the winner advances to the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 2 at Levi’s Stadium. A Washington win will also keep its playoff hopes alive. The South Division crown will be determined Saturday night, when another surprise team—Colorado—hosts Utah. The Buffaloes lead the division with a 7-1 league mark, followed by USC at 7-2. If the Buffs win, they play the Washington-WSU winner on Dec. 2. If the Buffs lose, USC advances to the championship game by virtue of its head-to-head victory over Colorado.
Big Ten: The nation’s No. 2 and No. 3 ranked teams meet in Columbus on Saturday afternoon when Ohio State hosts Michigan. Both teams are 10-1 overall and 7-1 in league play. Penn State is also 7-1; the Nittany Lions upset Ohio State and lost to Michigan. So if the Wolverines win Saturday, they will advance to the conference championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis. However, if the Buckeyes win and Penn State beats Michigan State Saturday, Penn State advances to the championship game.
Heisman watch: The landscape shifted last week, as Lamar Jackson’s sub-par performance in Louisville’s shocking 36-10 loss to Houston may have opened the door a crack. Jackson rushed for 33 yards, completed less than 50% of his passes, and spent most of the afternoon on his back. He is still the favorite, but another lackluster effort against Kentucky this week, combined with a spectacular day from one of his pursuers, could turn the tide. Jackson is fortunate there is no clear-cut No. 2 at this point. Among the names listed in top five rankings by my esteemed colleagues: Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma WR; Jalen Hurts, Alabama QB; Sam Darnold, USC QB; Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB; Dalvin Cook, Florida State RB; McCaffrey, Jake Browning, Washington QB; and J.T. Barrett, Ohio State QB. With that many names in the hopper, and the lack of a clear-cut No. 2, you can see why Jackson is still in front. For what it’s worth, here’s our top five at this point: 1) Jackson, 2) McCaffrey, 3) Browning, 4) Barrett, 5) Hurts.