Big Game comes early this year for Stanford, Cal
The sun is shining, the days are warm and No. 22 Stanford and California still have half a season left to play entering the 115th edition of the Big Game rivalry.
If the timing seems strange, that's because it is.
In the first of what is expected to be at least one Pac-12 rivalry moved from its normal date some years because of the expanded league's squeezed schedule, the Bay Area schools will meet at remodeled Memorial Stadium on Saturday under an odd October sky. The teams traditionally play the final conference game against each other - if not the last game altogether.
Stanford coach David Shaw and Cal's Jeff Tedford both said preparing for each other so soon seems a little awkward. Each program's athletic director denounced the date when it was announced. And almost every player, particularly the upperclassmen, admitted the schedule seems out of sorts.
''I don't like it,'' Shaw said. ''I think it's weird. I think it's different.''
As much as the schools and conference tried, the atypical timing of this season's Big Game couldn't be avoided.
The Pac-12 championship, which began last season when the league added Colorado and Utah, takes up the first weekend of December - a date often used for rivalry games. The conference's landmark TV deal, worth about $3 billion, added more Thursday night games. And per league policy, teams must have a bye week the Saturday before Thursday night games.
The result left Stanford (4-2, 2-1) and Cal (3-4, 2-2) with three options: play on Thanksgiving weekend, which both rejected, citing concerns about midweek festivities during the holiday. The second was to play the Saturday before Thanksgiving, which member athletic directors shot down, saying that would strain other parts of the league schedule. And the third was to play Oct. 20, which athletic directors who make the schedule formed a majority to force the schools to accept.
''We're going to prepare and we're going to play. There's nothing I can do about it,'' Tedford said. ''But it's a little bit awkward, because you normally play your traditional rival at the end of the year.''
And while only the Big Game is impacted this season, more in the Pac-12 will be soon.
In years like 2012, when the calendar has only 14 Saturdays during football season, at least one game has to be shifted to create flexibility. That won't be a problem the next two years, but come 2015, there will be four straight 14-week seasons.
That means rivalry games such as Oregon-Oregon State, Southern California-UCLA, Washington-Washington State and Arizona-Arizona State will likely have to be shuffled. The conference plans to rotate rivalry games so the same programs aren't playing earlier than they want to every year.
''The Pac-12 Conference values the importance of our historic rivalry games and the importance of scheduling them in traditional end-of-season dates,'' Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said when the schedule was released. ''However, with the addition of our championship football game the last week of the season, and new television agreements commencing in 2012, there will be additional priorities that need to be balanced when making the schedule that will mean occasional date adjustments to rivalry games.''
The Stanford-Cal rivalry, like so many others across the country, has typically been a way for one - or both - programs to often make their season on the final day - or wreck the other's.
Sometimes the result will affect bowl eligibility. Other times even save a coach's or quarterback's job. Mostly, though, it's about bragging rights all winter. This year?
''Right now, it's kind of weird,'' Stanford senior linebacker Chase Thomas said. ''It's October, it's still warm outside.''
The Cardinal have won the last two matchups and three of the last five. But Stanford no longer has Andrew Luck and has yet to score an offensive touchdown in two road games - both losses - this season under inconsistent quarterback Josh Nunes and a group of young wide receivers who dropped four balls in a 20-13 overtime loss at Notre Dame last weekend.
The Golden Bears, meanwhile, have won two straight for the first time all season and are a looking for an upset to launch them into the season's second half.
''I remember when we beat them last. That was really fun and kind of one of the highlights of my season as a freshman,'' Cal center Brian Schwenke said. ''To be in the middle of the season right now playing them, it's a little different.''
Adding to the oddness of the October matchup, the game will also be the first at Memorial Stadium since Cal's long-time home underwent a $321 million seismic retrofit and renovation.
In a series that dates back to 1892, the schools have played on both campuses and in San Francisco. They've never played in October - until Saturday.
''It doesn't matter when it is or where it is,'' Shaw said. ''We'll be up for it.''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP