THE University of California — Cal football begins quest to claim state

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There are college football stars. There are college football legends. And then, there’s Tim Tebow.

From the unorthodox, yet successful, technique he utilized as a quarterback at the University of Florida, to the motivational speeches on ESPN’s College GameDay, Tebow is an icon who’s hard to miss, even after his playing days on the gridiron.

I love Tim Tebow for these reasons and more, but it’s the motivational aspect of Tebow’s personality that impacts me the most. And one of my favorite Tebow speeches of all time stems from his concept of what a true rivalry is.

But wait, this isn’t Stanford game week. If we’re talking rivalries, it might make more sense for this column to run next week, when Cal takes the field against the friendly folks in cardinal and white over on The Farm.

If you take a look at recent history, however, it’s fair to say that the Bears have not one, but three rivalry games to close out the 2019 campaign.

Let’s start with USC. For 15 years, both USC and Cal were at the top of their development game, producing some of the biggest NFL names to ever play “America’s Game” — from Clay Matthews and JuJu Smith-Schuster to Aaron Rodgers and Marshawn Lynch.

Yet from the time I was five years old to my tenure as The Daily Californian’s sports editor just last fall, a curse persisted, as the Trojans won 14 consecutive matchups against the Bears. I’m fairly certain that USC’s annoying fight song was stuck in my head all throughout my middle and high school years.

Then in 2018, redemption.

All you needed to see was a first-year starting quarterback flashing the infamous “Fight On” symbol at the home crowd after a score, and then quickly pointing his two fingers toward the ground, to know that the streak was over.

But while Cal (finally) got the best of USC after being smashed in the mouth by the Trojans and their lousy fight song for 14 straight years, you best believe USC hasn’t forgotten Chase Garbers’ touchdown celebration in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum end zone in November 2018. And with the Bears celebrating senior night this weekend in their throwback Joe Roth uniforms, the stage is set for a pre-Big-Game-week showdown.

With USC serving as the appetizer to a three-course meal, it’s fitting that Cal’s main course is Stanford, where David Shaw’s smug expression remains fixated in place. Since taking over as the Cardinal head coach in 2011, Shaw has yet to surrender the Axe back to the blue and gold.

In fact, this month marks a full decade since Cal possessed the Axe, the longest such drought in rivalry history. Brutal.

But hey, there’s hope in 2019. For the first time under Shaw’s watch, the Cardinal look vulnerable. With all due respect to Cameron Scarlett, Stanford is without a marquee tailback — the exact position that has given the Bears all sorts of fits in nearly every Cal-Stanford battle this decade.

And with Garbers on the cusp of a potential return to help guide Cal to a postseason berth, it would be quite the storyline for 2019 to be the year for another streak to be broken. While USC’s band has given me plenty to forget, Stanford’s band has the most iconic moment in rivalry history.

After back-to-back bouts with the heavyweights, the Bears close out the regular season against perhaps the “friendliest” of the three rivals: UCLA. While Cal differs greatly from USC and Stanford in many aspects, the Bruins actually share quite a bit in common with the Bears. Maybe too much.

You’ve all heard the song “Big C” played before and during Cal home games. Now listen to “Sons of Westwood,” a popular tune heard during UCLA games. Notice anything similar?

On the field, the Bruins may not have had the ownage that the Trojans and Cardinal have had over the Bears throughout this decade. But they have had Cal’s number in recent years.

In 2017, a UCLA quarterback named Devon Modster — yes, that Devon Modster over on the Cal sideline— denied Cal bowl eligibility in Justin Wilcox’s first season as head coach. In 2018, with the Bears celebrating homecoming weekend and UCLA off to a 0-5 start, the Bruins blew them out by 30 points, giving Chip Kelly his first UCLA victory and costing Brandon McIlwain his brief hold on the starting quarterback job.

If Cal falls to both USC and Stanford, a rematch down in Pasadena, perhaps with Modster leading the charge on the opposite sideline, would be another rivalry-caliber storyline for two teams eager to play one more game in December.

As the conclusion of the season evokes bittersweet feelings for a host of Bears who will be playing their final home game Saturday and their final contests altogether in the coming weeks, expect emotions to be at an all-time high.

And as the great Tebow said, “When you put on that rival’s uniform, you instantly dislike them. It’s a different level of dislike. And why rivalry week is so special.”

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.