The 'Big Game' is a big game this season

For a while now, when California and Stanford took the field to play the annual "Big Game," the name of the Bay Area rivalry contest seemed like the two brainy universities' best effort to teach the rest of the college football nation how to correctly understand the oft-misused term "irony."

Not this year.

For the first time since 1991, both teams are ranked: Stanford (7-3, 6-2) is 17th and Cal (7-3, 4-3) is 25th in the BCS standings. And have winning records. The stakes, particularly for Stanford, are high. The Cardinal, after whipping Oregon and USC, are in the middle of the Rose Bowl race, while the rising Bears would like to play spoiler and improve their bowl positioning.

There's also the role reversal. Homestanding Stanford, losers of six of seven in the series, including a 37-16 whipping last year, is the decided favorite.

"They are probably the hottest team in the country right now," Cal coach Jeff Tedford observed.

Tedford's Bears, however, after tumbling from the top 10 due to consecutive humiliating losses to Oregon and USC, have quietly righted themselves. They've won four of five games, including an impressive 24-16 win last weekend over Arizona, a team that beat Stanford. The defense, which had been inconsistent much of the year, held the Pac-10's No. 1 offense to just 274 yards.

Cal ranks 19th in the nation in run defense (104.1 yards per game), while Stanford and leading Heisman Trophy candidate Toby Gerhart rank 10th in run offense (222.4 ypg), so this will be a strength-on-strength matchup.

"They play so physically," Tedford said. "Their offensive line is the best offensive line in the conference. They're big, they're athletic. [They have] physical tight ends, the fullback is very physical. Toby is a runner that doesn't go down with arm tackles and has the speed in the open field to break the long one. Those games [Oregon and USC] are no fluke. There wasn't anything flukish about those games. Those were dominating performances."

Tedford is touching upon a theme that is central to Stanford's rise under coach Jim Harbaugh: physical and perhaps even nasty play. More than a few opposing players and coaches have noted that the Cardinal not only want to maul you during a play, but they also are not above continuing their effort past the, say, echo of the referee's whistle. And maybe there are a few more pokes and grabs and punches in the pile-up and scrum at the line of scrimmage than in the past when Stanford suited up.

Offensive tackle Chris Marinelli admits nothing. But you can feel a grin as he speaks through the telephone line.

"It is so contrary to what everybody pins on us," he said. "They think we're a bunch of nerds and we're pretty soft guys. That's not the case and we're showing that this year."

The player who may best personify Stanford's transformation is not Gerhart but fullback Owen Marecic, whom Harbaugh has repeatedly called his "favorite" player. The 6-foot-1, 244-pounder might be the most feared blocker in the conference, at least among linebackers.

"He's just a sick dude. He's crazy. He lives for head-on collisions," Marinelli said. "A lot of guys try to swim you or run around you. He just wants to come out and smash heads as hard as he possibly can. Then he kind of looks at you with a sickening smile. He's crazy."

Marinelli knows this because Marecic has doubled at times this season as a linebacker, so the poor old 6-foot-7, 300-pound Marinelli, an NFL prospect and the only senior on the Stanford line, knows what a Marecic hit feels like.

Marecic also sports a Peter Frampton haircut, is soft-spoken and is a human biology major who apparently wants to become a doctor.

These sorts of fawning observations about Stanford -- they're tough and smart, too! -- probably don't charm Cal players and fans that much. They sense that many assume the Axe is headed back to Stanford. That annoys them.

Offensive lineman Mike Tepper, a sixth-year senior, rates losing the Axe for a year the low point of his Cal career.

"Going 0-6 against USC is pretty bad, but losing the Axe in '07 was the worst feeling I've ever had in my life," he said. "It tears you apart and tears the community apart."

By the way, Tepper has been run over by a car, so he's had some bad feelings.

Tedford seemed perfectly willing to call his Bears the underdog. While Harbaugh heaped praise on Cal -- he said the Bears have best defensive front in the Pac-10 -- he also seemed comfortable with the position of Alpha Dog. To a point.

"You've got to fight the ills of hubris and overconfidence," he said. "They can be a killer."

But then Harbaugh added, "I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix'd and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament."

Actually, he didn't say that. But because this is Berkeley and Stanford -- and the Big Game is, at last, a big game -- it seemed appropriate to conclude with some Julius Caesar.