Not just any game, the 'Big Game'

Everyone loves the Big Game between Stanford and California. Everyone. Why?

Because without the Big Game, you wouldn't have "the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football."

That, of course, is longtime Bears announcer Joe Starkey's lovably befuddled call of "The Play," the miraculous five-lateral kickoff return in 1982 that concluded with Cal's Kevin Moen weaving through the Stanford band, which had prematurely taken the field in victory, and punctuating the winning touchdown by flattening trombone player Gary Tyrrell in the end zone.

Other than Stanford quarterback John Elway, whose heart was broken that day, who can possibly turn away while "The Play" is replayed on television?

Stanford and California first went nose-to-nose on March 19, 1892 in San Francisco. Former president Herbert Hoover was the Stanford team manager that afternoon on Haight Street grounds when Stanford beat Cal 14-10. The annual matchup earned the nickname "Big Game" in 1900. It's the 10th-longest rivalry in FBS football and the oldest on the West Coast.

The Stanford Axe became the victor's prize in 1933, though the axe itself has a colorful history of being at the center of the rivalry since 1899. In 1930, Stanford's "Immortal 21" stole the axe back after 31 years of captivity in Berkeley with an elaborate subterfuge that involved disguises and smoke bombs.

Stanford leads the series 55-44-11. It won last season 20-13, breaking a five-game Bears winning streak.

Today, both Cal coach Jeff Tedford and Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh say the rowdiness of the past has been replaced by respectful dislike between the academically elite schools.

"I'd characterize it as very, very intense but not a bitter rivalry," said Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback who probably knows a little about bitter rivalries.

Said Tedford, "It's a pretty healthy tradition, healthy rivalry. You have a lot of people who work together and I think there's a lot of respect there. To me, it's not a nasty rivalry with the fans. Obviously, it's pretty heated with the players, but with the fans I don't see the bitterness that, say, the Civil War had.

"They coexist pretty well in the Bay Area, I think."

Of course, Stanford needs to win Saturday to earn its first bowl berth since 2001. And California, which has lost two in a row, needs to win to avoid losing consecutive games to the Cardinal.
So the stakes remain high, even if the fans maintain a level of decorum.

Ted Miller is ESPN.com's Pac-10 football blogger. He can be reached at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.