There aren’t two 5-5 teams in the country that are more different than Cal and Stanford.
The Bears make their living on their offense. We know this already. Cal’s offense puts up points in bunches, but its defense gives them up in bunches, too.
Stanford is the opposite. The Cardinal has tried having Kevin Hogan throw the ball more this year, with results that have ranged from subpar to disastrous, and its offense has floundered as a result. Stanford’s defense, on the other hand, has been awesome, although it has regressed some from the godlike numbers it was putting up early in the season after giving up 45 points to Oregon.
What happens when an explosive offense meets a shut-down defense? Even more interesting, what happens when a crappy, ineffective offense meets a horribly flawed defense? I have no idea! That’s what makes this game so damn compelling (besides, you know, the Axe and 122-year rivalry, etc.).
But that won’t stop me from asking — and trying to answer — the question: Who wins?
Let’s go back to the offense-defense conundrum. If we only include teams that have played at least five games against Power-5 teams, Cal ranks in the top 10 in scoring offense, and Stanford ranks in the top 10 in scoring defense. Like I said, these teams couldn’t be more different.
There have been eight instances this year in which a team with a top-10 scoring offense has faced a team with a top-10 scoring defense. My thought would be that the defensive team would win, but as it turns out, the top-10 offense is 7-1 in those games.
But let’s expand the sample size a little bit and look at past seasons. If we go back to 2010, that number regresses significantly — over the past five seasons combined, top-10 offenses are just 29-25 when facing top-10 defenses.
Note that a few of these games include matchups in which a team fielded both a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, which makes it a little more difficult to assume that the result of a game necessarily indicates the triumph of offense or defense. Still, who said you need defense to win championships?
Advantage: Cal (kind of).
Outside offense and defense, Cal and Stanford appear to have similar talent
— they’re both 5-5 and are on the edge of bowl berths. But Stanford’s five losses have all come against ranked opponents, and three of them have come by a combined nine points. That 5-5 record is more of the result of a tough schedule combined with a down season than it is an indicator of problems with the Cardinal.
But the wins the Cardinal does have aren’t very impressive. Washington is the only team Stanford has topped with a winning record, and the combined record of the opponents its beaten is a paltry 19-32.
Cal, though, hasn’t beaten anyone with a winning record. And when we look at the common opponents the two schools have faced — Oregon, Washington, Washington State, USC and Oregon State — Cal has only performed better than Stanford against the Ducks, and the Cardinal had to take them on in Eugene.
Let’s leave the field and go to Vegas. If you put faith in gambling odds, Stanford opened as a 6.5 point favorite over the Bears.
That said, the Cardinal is just 3-7-1 against the spread this season, while Cal is 7-3 against the spread. And the Vegas odds have shifted ever so slightly toward Cal, which is now only a 5.5 point underdog.
Advantage: Still Stanford. Don’t kid yourself.
Cal at least can play at home this year, and the home team has an all-time record of 54-51-11 in the Big Game.
This year, Pac-12 teams have gone just 15-27 when facing in-conference opponents at home.
Advantage: Stanford, but only if you believe in the mysterious home-field disadvantage of the Pac-12.
I feel like I’m stretching for the Cal arguments and naturally easing into the Stanford ones here. It’s impossible not to give the edge to Stanford, especially since every single advanced college football metric I know of paints the Cardinal as a better team.
But I can’t help but think of the past upsets, the unbelievable plays and everything inbetween, and I remember these simple words: Anything can happen in the Big Game.