For Christmas in 2008, my parents surprised me with a ticket to the Emerald Bowl, which was being played just two short days later between Cal and a relatively mediocre Miami team. That Saturday, three of my friends and I squished into the back of a truck and drove roughly two hours from my home in Sacramento to AT&T Park in San Francisco, the site of the game.
Cal fans were lucky to have a bowl game so close to home. All bowl games are technically played at neutral site locations, but my best memory of that game is being able to actually see the Campanile across the bay from my seat in AT&T amid a sea of blue and gold faithful.
AT&T is about 30 feet (give or take a few) from UC Berkeley, but it’s nearly 3,000 miles (actually) from the University of Miami. This game wasn’t exactly set up to be fair.
And then, in the cold December air, I remember watching Jahvid Best — my favorite Cal player growing up — run to the tune of 186 yards and two touchdowns as Cal won its fourth-straight bowl game.
That’s the last time Cal won a bowl game. The Bears have made two since — one in 2009 and another in 2011 — but haven’t been able to emerge victorious.
The “Emerald” Bowl may sound flashy — kind of like the Cotton Bowl or the Sugar Bowl or, dare I say it, the Rose Bowl — but make no mistake: It’s not. It’s named (or was named) after Emerald Nuts. Since 2008, it’s gone through several iterations of names (including the appealing “Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl”) but is now called the San Francisco Bowl, which sounds like an improvement, except now it’s scheduled to be played 40 miles outside of San Francisco at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
But even though this bowl lacked in prestige, it was fun. It was postseason football — something that is looking more and more precarious with each passing week for Cal this season.
NCAA teams cannot make a bowl game with a losing record. For Cal, this means the Bears need six wins to be bowl eligible. At 4-3, Cal needs to win two of its remaining five games to get to that magical number. It sounds easy, but Cal’s final five opponents — Oregon, Oregon State, USC, Stanford and BYU — are some of the hardest the Bears will have to face so far this year.
Three of those five games — Oregon, USC and Stanford — would take a minor miracle for the Bears to come out on top. Oregon has already opened as a 16-point favorite over Cal for Friday night’s game. USC is projected to be even less winnable — ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Cal just an 11.7 percent chance of emerging from Los Angeles with a win.
Stanford, which holds the same 4-3 record as Cal right now, is the most winnable of those three, but I’m not holding my breath. Regardless of their offensive woes, the Cardinal still have arguably the best defense in the nation, fielding a unit that ranks second in Football Outsiders’ F/+ rankings — an advanced metric that measures efficiency — on that side of the ball.
That leaves Oregon State and BYU. The Beavers are the only team that is actually ranked below Cal in overall F/+, but with the game being played in Corvallis, Oregon, that might not be Cal’s best chance at a win. BYU has imploded since losing quarterback Taysom Hill to injury, losing three straight. Though the Cougars are currently ranked above Cal in most advanced metrics, the injury to their senior signal caller has thrown their team out of sorts. Cal could very well be favored in that matchup when Nov. 29 rolls around.
The pressure, though, is huge. Cal would need both those wins to advance to a bowl, otherwise, it has to count on upsetting one of the other three just to make it. Can you imagine a five-win Cal team going up against BYU in the season finale? It reminds me of 2010, and that didn’t turn out so well for the Bears.
Cal has a real chance to make a bowl again — its first in years — and I know Cal fans are hungry for that 13th game. I don’t care if it’s the Comcast Customer Appreciation Bowl™ (kicking off sometime between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.) — playing in a bowl game is great. But with no “gimme” wins left, Cal has to treat every game from here on out like it’s an elimination game.