There’s a new twist to the climax of the Bay Area’s college football season, almost surely an outsiders-only affair. As inappropriate as the setting might sound, the national championship game will be played at Levi’s Stadium on Jan. 7.
In many ways, it’s a splendid setting. We’ve seen enough big games decided in domed stadiums, and as we remember from the 49ers’ glory days, there’s a possibility of fine Northern California weather in January. With such powerhouses as Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Wisconsin in the mix this year, and most such schools prepared to send at least 20,000 fans to Santa Clara, there’s a pretty good chance it won’t resemble the tepid atmosphere of the Pac-12 championship games played at Levi’s.
The title-game organizers are advertising it as “the largest and most significant college football event ever played in the Bay Area,” and that’s a bit of a stretch. You’re certain to hear cries of outrage from the Cal and Stanford people, particularly recalling those Big Game matchups when both teams were ranked among the nation’s best. But this championship game really isn’t their concern.
For Stanford, a team that has a chance to win any game under head coach David Shaw, the goal is to somehow outlast Washington, USC and other contenders during the Pac-12 season. Cal is looking merely to have a winning record, good for a bowl berth, and that would be a worthy accomplishment for head coach Justin Wilcox, who exudes confidence and football savvy from the moment he walks into a room.
There is certainly a lot more to success than looking the part. Because things never go exactly to plan at Cal (last Rose Bowl appearance: after the 1958 season), there will be a crushing loss or two along the way. But Cal won’t often be overmatched with tough-minded Ross Bowers at quarterback, Patrick Laird carrying the load at running back and able receivers in Vic Wharton III and Kanawai Noa. If a vastly improved secondary comes as advertised, the defense might be equipped to compete against a conference loaded with pass-happy attacks.
So much of Stanford’s season will center around running back Bryce Love, who took a serious run at the Heisman Trophy last season, and here’s a huge thumbs-up for his returning to school. We felt the same way about Andrew Luck’s decision to play another season at Stanford (2011). There’s nothing like the collegiate experience for someone immersed in the academic rewards, social life and a sense that his team might be bound for greatness. It’s a special player who understands all this, and now we get to enjoy Love, health willing, for another season.
As for the Pac-12 Conference, a few key things to know:
•Stanford had a favorable home schedule last season. Now comes the flip side: the games against Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon and Cal are all on the road. The most serious home tests come early: San Diego State on Friday night (the Cardinal lost to the Aztecs last year) and USC on Sept. 8.
•No change in the television stalemate. Just when you’re enjoying DirecTV for the benefits of its all-inclusive NFL package, you have to sign up with Comcast to get the Pac-12 Network and the full measure of conference games. Commissioner Larry Scott seems resigned to the status quo until the current contract expires in 2023, and once again, DirecTV has good reasons for backing off.
Even without the Pac-12 Network, DirecTV viewers get the important Pac-12 games most every weekend. This Saturday is a great example, with Fox carrying Cal (against North Carolina) and Arizona State (Texas-San Antonio); ESPN taking UCLA (Cincinnati) and Arizona (BYU), and ABC airing Washington (Auburn) and Oregon State (Ohio State). The Pac-12 Network is left with UNLV-USC and Bowling Green-Oregon.
•Let’s hope this doesn’t happen again: The first part of last year’s Washington-Stanford game was bumped off FS1 for the conclusion of a truck race.
•With a solid chance of going 3-0 in nonconference play, Cal opens its Pac-12 schedule against Oregon on Sept. 29. This is an intriguing game because of Wilcox’s Oregon connections: grew up there, played for the Ducks, and is a longtime family friend of quarterback Justin Herbert, who could put himself into the Heisman conversation. But the game is in Berkeley, Oregon will be coming off its Stanford game, and Cal will be returning from a bye week. Fair chance for an upset here.
•Overdue: No team will play a Saturday road game followed by a Friday road game. This bit of awkward scheduling has proved costly to a number of contending teams in recent years.
•The glaring, unacceptable insult to fans continues. Starting with the fourth week of the Pac-12 season, all starting times will be announced either six or 12 days prior to kickoff. Trying to plan for that big family trip? Forget about it. And you never know, that daytime fantasy might be squelched by a 7 p.m. starting time.
•Plenty of intrigue surrounding two new head coaches. The wildly energetic Herm Edwards hasn’t coached anywhere since 2008, and people around the Arizona State campus wonder whether he’ll be known as a maniac, a savior, or an overmatched coach unable to live up to the school’s lofty expectations. Meanwhile, former 49ers head coach Chip Kelly returns to the collegiate ranks at UCLA. “He’ll be given the time he needs to really build something,” Washington State head coach Mike Leach told ESPN. “Plus, if he loses a game he shouldn’t lose but LeBron (James) twists his ankle that same night, he might not even make it into the newspaper the next morning.”
•Kelly nostalgia: During his time at Oregon, the Ducks went 46-7 and made an appearance in the national-title game (after the 2010 season, losing to Auburn). On Nov. 3, he leads his Bruins into Eugene.
•How to define versatility in a quarterback: Arizona’s Khalil Tate rushed for 840 yards in a month (October) last season. In the Foster Farms Bowl against Purdue, he passed for 302 yards and five touchdowns.
•It’s rare to see a 5-7 team qualify for a bowl game, which is good, because no team with a losing record deserves such a reward. It certainly won’t happen in the Pac-12, which now prohibits 5-7 teams from qualifying. Reasons: disadvantages in recruiting, travel costs and the likelihood of few fans making a bowl-game trip.
•In any case, the Pac-12 has an image problem. Last year’s 1-8 bowl record was the worst ever produced by a conference, and on top of that, Washington got snubbed as the tournament’s four teams were sorted out. Now comes UW’s season opener against Auburn in Atlanta on Saturday, a winnable game for head coach Chris Petersen’s team. A triumph would be huge for the Huskies — and a conference that needs a boost in reputation.