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Stanford Cardinal vs. California Golden Bears Preview and Prediction

Sonny Dykes

Sonny Dykes

Stanford's run at or near the top of the Pac-12 has coincided with a monopolization of The Axe.

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The Axe — awarded to the winner of the annual Big Game, played between Bay Area rivals Cal and Stanford — last resided in Berkeley in 2009. That's also the last season Stanford's overall record failed to eclipse that of Cal.

After losing at Washington State last week, the host Golden Bears need to break their Big Game losing streak Saturday in order to keep their bowl aspirations alive.

Speaking of staying alive, Stanford's kept its hope of winning at least 10 games for the sixth time in seven seasons alive with a recent resurgence. Since falling to 4-3 with a home loss to Colorado on Oct. 22, the Cardinal have ripped off three straight wins.

They're now positioned at No. 25 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and with two regular-season games and a bowl remaining, can win out to get to 10-3 on the campaign.

Stanford at Cal

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 19, at 5:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks

Spread: Stanford -10.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Christian McCaffrey on a Roll
McCaffrey's play since returning from an unspecified injury serves as a reminder of why he finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting a season ago.

McCaffrey torched Oregon 135 rushing yards on just 17 carries, and reached pay dirt three times. He added 52 receiving yards, showing off the versatility that made him college football's single-season total-yardage record holder in 2015.

Over the last three games, McCaffrey's scored six rushing touchdowns and one receiving, and broken the 100-yard mark on the ground in each win. Opposite the nation's second-most porous run defense, McCaffrey's recent resurgence may not just continue — it could reach new heights.

McCaffrey had one of his signature games of the 2015 campaign last year against Cal, rushing for 192 yards; taking a pass 49 yards for a touchdown; and running back a kickoff for a score.

2. Solving the Stanford Defense
In four seasons under head coach Sonny Dykes, Cal's boasted one of the most prolific offenses in college football. Against rival Stanford, however, the "bear raid' has been grounded.

Cal's scored 52 total points against Stanford in Dykes' previous three meetings against David Shaw's program. Despite struggles earlier in the season, this year's Cardinal defense has matured into one of the more imposing in the Pac-12.

Since surrendering 44 and 42 points in consecutive weeks to Washington and Washington State, Stanford's held opponents to 10, 10, 10 and 15 points. Only last week did Oregon break the string of games in teens, and the Ducks' 27 points were largely the result of having additional possessions because the Cardinal scored 52.

Defensive end Solomon Thomas' push for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year continues against a typically potent Cal offense, which has sputtered in recent weeks. The Golden Bears have been unable to crack 30 points during their current, three-game losing streak.

3. All-In Early
With a home crowd for rivalry week, and the must-win stakes at play, Cal needs to come out aggressively early. That means offensive coordinator Jake Spavital emptying the playbook early, and defensive coordinator Art Kaufman throwing everything he has in hopes of disrupting the Stanford offense.

Cal's running game woes are no secret, and the Cardinal will seek to establish McCaffrey early. The Golden Bears' best hope to that end is loading up the box and bringing heavy, consistent blitzes on quarterback Keller Chryst.

Chryst had his breakout game against Oregon last week, throwing for three touchdowns while going 19-of-26. However, the Ducks' passing defense has been dreadful all season long; that showing isn't indicative of a larger trend. The onus is on the Cal defense to make Stanford a passing team.

For the Bears on offense, every possession is critical. Washington and Washington State both succeeded in hitting the Cardinal defense with explosive plays, albeit against an injury-plagued secondary. Still, the blueprint's the same — deliver big passing plays early and often.

Final Analysis

For all of the concern about Stanford's fall from atop the Pac-12 midway through the season, the Cardinal's climb back into the top 25 deserves credit. Christian McCaffrey's back to playing some of the most exciting football in the conference, and the defense is dominant once more.

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Cal hasn't matched up well with Stanford in recent years, and 2016 is no exception. Stanford should be able to deflate the Golden Bears early with McCaffrey on the ground, and an overwhelming defensive presence on the opposite side of the ball.

Prediction: Stanford 48, Cal 24

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.