When they met a year ago, Cal and Stanford stood at polar opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Golden Bears were mired in a season of 1-11 despair. They didn't beat a single FBS team throughout their entire 2013 journey.
The Cardinal, meanwhile, were again shooting toward the Pac-12 pinnacle. Arizona upset Oregon on the day David Shaw's team walloped Cal 63-13. The 50-point obliteration represented the largest margin in Big Game history. It catapulted Stanford into the Pac-12 championship game and eventually the Rose Bowl.
A lot can change in less than a calendar year.
Cal and Stanford are ready to renew hostilities for the 117th time, and though the Cardinal are still the favorite Saturday, their 5-5 record suddenly stands in a dead heat with the Bears.
In the 362 days since one of the biggest mismatches in their rivalry's history, Cal and Stanford have zoomed in opposite directions. Sonny Dykes' program has made significant strides under sophomore quarterback Jared Goff, while Shaw's fragile post-Andrew Luck success has vanished on the offensive end. The Bears still struggle mightily on defense (last in the Pac-12) while the Cardinal still excel on that side of the ball (best in the Pac-12), but both teams' overall complexions have driven them to the same late November spot: a .500 record.
Objectives moving forward
The next goal for Cal involves clinching bowl eligibility, and the Bears can kill two birds with one stone by winning Saturday, as that would also restore some balance to a Northern California war that Stanford has commanded this decade. This much has been documented: The Cal offense built around Goff and Daniel Lasco is good. But the Bears must show meaningful improvement defensively to get this job done, as they made Stanford's mercurial offense (8.6 yards per play) look like the 1994 San Francisco 49ers last season. Cal has given up 39.7 points and 518 yards per game this season, last in the Pac-12. But the Cardinal's offense has regressed significantly this season, and Dykes seems confident that his defense has improved enough to meet the challenge this time.
"We're a better football team, and we're certainly better defensively," he said. "The numbers haven't necessarily been where we want or need them to be, but we're a lot better than we were. ... Last year we had to commit extra guys to the box and we were susceptible to a lot of big plays. We're constructed differently now. Our ability to hold up against the run will give us a better opportunity this year."
While Stanford is reeling, they're also viewing this game through a lens of opportunity --with a seasoning of desperation. Nose tackle David Parry acknowledged the Cardinal's season -- one that started with College Football Playoff aspirations -- would be a failure without at least one win in the final two games. Receiver Jeff Trojan was more forgiving -- "It's tough to say anything is a failure when you've grown with so many people in the program," he said -- but the senior recognized that a chance to play for the prized Big Game trophy overlapped with Stanford's desire to salvage this forgettable season.
Perhaps Trojan's comments before last year's contest, which also came after a brutal loss, best illustrate the Cardinal's approach heading to Memorial Stadium.
"We aren't very fond of [Cal]," he said. "They stole our Axe and I don't like them for that."
So, because bitterness remains because of an 1899 theft that has been part of rivalry lore in three separate centuries now, it's safe to say that Stanford -- the wounded bully -- relishes a 2014 opportunity to show its cross-Bay nemesis that it's still in charge.
With Goff on an upward trajectory as he approaches his junior season, Cal is expected to continue its charge upward -- especially if defensive challenges are at least partially answered. For Stanford, then, there's a real sense of urgency to circle the wagons and make a rigid stand now, when talent and depth advantages both still favor them. The Cardinal have their own explosive offensive stockpile maturing for next year and beyond -- perhaps along the lines of Christian McCaffrey -- and setting the table for the upcoming wave is of utmost importance.
The winner of this contest earns bowl eligibility, and the extra preparation time associated with that is a big first step in the foundation of the future. Regardless of any potential bowl destinations, this is the type of game that can set a tone for the long offseason of work ahead for both programs. They're on opposite trajectories now, and this Saturday's clash can either hasten or alter the directions of both shifts.
Cal and Stanford have reached the tipping point, and there's more than an Axe at stake.