The intersections of history and the present moment can make life so endlessly fascinating at times. Such is the case with this weekend’s meeting between the California Golden Bears and the Texas Longhorns.
Eleven years ago, the two teams competing for a spot in the 2005 Rose Bowl were Cal and Texas. If you know your Bowl Championship Series history, you know that one of the teams with a disproportionately large effect on BCS results — one a national title race, one a Rose Bowl race — was the University of Southern Mississippi.
In 2001, USM barely lost to TCU, a result which enabled Nebraska to top Colorado by a few decimal points for the right to play Miami for the natty in the 2002 Rose Bowl. Three years later, the Golden Eagles would help decide a two-team fight for a non-championship version of the Granddaddy, and it’s one which left scars in Strawberry Canyon.
The California Golden Bears were originally scheduled to play Southern Miss on Sept. 16, 2004. However, the arrival of Hurricane Ivan near the Gulf Coast caused the game to be postponed. The most workable date for the staging of the game was Dec. 4, on the Saturday when college football played its conference championship games at the end of the 2004 regular season. Most people were watching the SEC and Big 12 crown their conference champions, but with the smaller slate of games, plenty of eyes were fixed on Cal, as it went to Mississippi to play its final game before the bowls.
The Bears were shaky and sluggish. The team that had almost beaten mighty USC (and frankly carried the run of play in that game, only to be undone by special-teams mistakes) was not in its element, playing multiple time zones away at a point in the year when it normally would have been at home, taking care of academics and bowl-game preparations. As a side note, Cal teams coached by Jeff Tedford often struggled playing outside of their region. This was mostly a 9 a.m. Pacific time issue, however; this game against Southern Miss was played in the evening hours.
Cal almost found itself in a 17-17 tie, but a blocked extra point and a 2-point runback enabled the Bears to gain a 19-16 lead. They then sealed the game with a touchdown run, but it took them over 55 minutes to put away the Golden Eagles. That touchdown didn’t come until the 4:51 mark of the fourth quarter.
Texas, competing with Cal for the Rose Bowl berth against Michigan, had the brand name to tout, whereas Cal had not been to the Granddaddy since 1959 against Iowa. One could quite reasonably say that Texas would have gotten in regardless of what anyone said or did. However, it was clear that Texas coach Mack Brown was not going to let a lobbying opportunity pass him by. Brown went into political overdrive to sell voters on the merits of his team. Tedford — perhaps unaccustomed to the process, perhaps preferring to let his team’s accomplishments and qualilty sell themselves (and probably a lot of both) — did not try to match Brown in a talking-point spinfest.
We know what happened when the final BCS standings were released in the hours after Cal’s not-that-convincing win over Southern Miss: Texas leapfrogged Cal and went to Pasadena. A wait of over 45 years in Berkeley did not come to an end.
Cal and Tedford never really recovered from that snub. Aaron Rodgers (yeah, remember him?) and Marshawn Lynch (ever heard of that guy?) turned out okay in the pros, but the Golden Bears never came as close to the Rose Bowl for the remainder of Tedford’s tenure.
Texas, meanwhile, parlayed that Rose Bowl experience in 2005 into big-game chops which blossomed in the next college football season. Texas stepped through several landmines and then rallied late behind Vince Young to defeat USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl, easily one of the greatest college football games ever played. Brown did what he set out to do at Texas: win the national title Fred Akers’s teams couldn’t quite capture, and restore luster to a program which had quickly deteriorated under John Mackovic after winning the last football championship in the old Southwest Conference.
Even with all the struggles which marked the Texas program in the latter stages of Mack Brown’s tenure, you could not have looked at this 2015 reunion a few years ago and concluded that Cal would be in a position to beat Texas, gaining revenge for the Rose Bowl snub at the end of the 2004 season. In the 2011 Holiday Bowl, a mediocre Texas team beat a decent Cal team, 21-10. Even when the Longhorns had fallen to a considerable degree, they were able to keep Cal at a distance.
When Charlie Strong was hired by Texas to great acclaim — taking the baton from Brown, who is now a fine and improving broadcaster — the Longhorns weren’t supposed to be great in year one of his tenure, but the situation was supposed to improve in year two… which is this year.
Yet, you’ve seen the implosion and erosion of the Texas athletic department under Steve Patterson, whom associate editor Bart Doan wrote about just before the news of his firing broke on Tuesday morning. From the dismissal of football media relations superstar John Bianco (who should expect to be re-hired shortly by the new regime), to the alienation of faculty and important boosters, to all sorts of tone-deaf decisions based solely on collecting an extra buck, Patterson left behind a trail of wreckage in Austin, all while Strong has had to kick players off his team in order to create the right subculture.
Texas has, in short, hired a coach with all the right values… but at a time when the athletic director who brought him aboard had all the wrong ones. It’s a confusing and cluttered time to be a Bevo backer, but this is precisely what infuses Saturday’s Cal-Texas tilt with such a delicious backdrop.
California is trying to get back to a bowl, and also to the level Tedford established with Rodgers and Lynch 11 years ago. That process has unexpectedly led to an intersection of hope and fear in Austin this weekend.
The hope comes from being a 6.5-point favorite, a team which genuinely looks superior to Texas by most measurements. Jared Goff gets the publicity at quarterback, but Cal’s defense smothered San Diego State last Saturday and leads the Pac-12 in a number of defensive categories. Given the profound struggles Texas has endured on offense — Strong has already changed offensive coordinators this season — the Longhorns are likely to struggle before they improve. Tyrone Swoopes hardly looks like “the man” at quarterback, a marked departure from the prime portion of the Mack Brown era, when Vince Young passed the torch to Colt McCoy in a “Pax Bevoana” which feels like an increasingly distant memory.
In many ways, this game is perfectly set up for Cal to win… maybe even comfortably.
However, the trade-off for a favorable X-and-O matchup is that California must go to Austin. It will have to win a road night game in the kind of environment it will rarely if ever face for the remainder of this season. Being two time zones away — in the same region of the country where the Southern Miss game was played 11 years ago — Cal will be challenged by logistics and other intangible factors. Finding the internal steel needed to marry belief with execution will be the Golden Bears’ toughest task on Saturday. If they can cross that particular threshold, everything else should fall into place.
If they don’t, they could fail to settle an old score from 2004… and worse, fail to move the program forward the way they hope and expect to in 2015.
California, realistically endowed with a chance to accomplish so much this year.
Texas, in decline and paralyzed by distractions, but still the owner of a burnt orange jersey, which — like a set of New York Yankee pinstripes or Los Angeles Laker gold and purple — can make players play above their pay grade on any given day.
One team wants revenge. The other simply wants to get back on the right track.
One team wants to reach a mountaintop it hasn’t been to in over half a century. The other wants to return to a pinnacle which exists only six years in the past… but feels like 26 at the moment.
Golden Bears. Longhorns. In many ways, it’s the most historically and contextually irresistible game on the tube this Saturday night.