The 124th edition of the Big Game represents an opportunity to compensate some for what has been an otherwise disappointing 2021 for both Cal and Stanford.
The Golden Bears and Cardinal came into the campaign with high hopes, but each sit at three wins. Stanford's been eliminated from postseason contention, and Cal needs to win out in order to make a bowl game. That includes beating USC in a game rescheduled to Dec. 4 after positive COVID-19 tests resulted in the original date's postponement.
An abundance of absences on Nov. 6 forced Cal to play without several team members, including quarterback Chase Garbers, and some of the coaching staff in a 10-3 loss at Arizona.
Returning to a more normal lineup in time for the Big Game has Cal "as excited and as motivated as they've been since I've been here," according to head coach Justin Wilcox, speaking with reporters this week.
California at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: California -1.5
When California Has the Ball
Cal's loss at Arizona underscored the importance of Garbers to the Golden Bears offense. His absence didn't just impact the passing game, which failed to reach 100 yards against the Wildcats, but it also rendered the rushing attack completely ineffective.
Garbers comes back fresh to face a Stanford defense that is struggling mightily this season. The Cardinal have been especially porous against the run, giving up 230.7 yards per game. Only three FBS teams are surrendering more.
While Cal will have the option of pounding the run, Stanford must play the pass honestly. Garbers has quietly been one of the best passers in the Pac-12 over the last month, throwing multiple touchdowns in three games without an interception.
When Stanford Has the Ball
Run-game woes plaguing Stanford from the moment 2016 Heisman finalist Bryce Love injured his ankle in '17 have persisted into 2021. The Cardinal rank ahead of only six teams in rushing production this season and are producing the third-fewest rushing yards of a Power 5 conference team; one of the two is Mississippi State, which doesn't really try to run the ball.
The difficulties Stanford has had establishing a ground game have put a heavy burden on Tanner McKee. The quarterback was electric through the first half of the season, but an injury sustained ahead of the Cardinal's matchup with Utah rendered Stanford ineffective in all offensive phases.
McKee is likely to return for the Big Game. His presence gives Stanford some life, but facing a rush defense ranked in the top 40 nationally with a ground game already struggling to get going figures to leave the Cardinal one-dimensional.
Rest or rust: That could be the theme for this year's edition of the Big Game. Cal having had an impromptu bye week could work to its favor with most of the lineup back, but Garbers has not played in almost a month.
The same applies to McKee, who can expect to see steady pressure from pass rushers Cameron Goode, Marqez Bimage, and Ethan Saunders. It probably won't be pretty but look for rest to triumph over rust Saturday out on The Farm.
Prediction: California 24, Stanford 17
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