Stanford, thanks to its upset of then-No. 9 Washington last week, kept itself alive for the Pac-12 North title.
The Cardinal, Huskies and Washington State all enter the week with two league losses, with one of the Washington schools guaranteed another loss when they meet in their regular-season finale in the Apple Cup.
Stanford (7-3, 6-2 Pac-12) has the head-to-head tiebreaker in the division over Washington, but not Washington State.
Stanford will have no reason to watch the scoreboard on Nov. 25 if it doesn’t take care of business in the “Big Game” on Saturday.
Stanford, which moved into the College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday night at No. 22, hosts rival Cal on Saturday night, the final conference game of the season for the Cardinal, who finish at home against Notre Dame a week later.
While Stanford is still playing for big prizes, including a Pac-12 title, Cal (5-5, 2-5) is just trying to get bowl eligible, either this week or next, when they host UCLA on Nov. 24.
Beating Stanford will be difficult, but at least Cal is well-rested, coming off a bye week. Plus, the Golden Bears have shown the capability to be giant-slayers, beating Washington State 37-3 earlier this season.
“We knew coming into the season that we had to have a chip on our shoulders. Over the past couple of years, people have always doubted us,” said senior linebacker Raymond Davison III. “With reason, I get it. But they’re also not the ones on the inside putting in the work.
“We’re going to get to six wins. We’re going to find a way. We’re going to find a way to get The Axe. I don’t care if the score is 2-0.”
With the way Stanford junior Bryce Love is running the football, a 2-0 score probably isn’t feasible.
Stanford is coming off a game in which its offensive line — always the backbone of the Cardinal — played its best game in “about a month,” coach David Shaw said.
And that helped Love do what he does, with 166 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the 30-22 win over the Huskies, despite being hampered by a bad ankle. He is the nation’s leading rusher at 180.2 yards per game.
“Bryce Love continues to amaze,” Shaw said. “On one leg, breaking tackles, making big plays. Just a special, special player.”
Love hasn’t participated in a full practice in about a month since he injured his ankle against Oregon. He missed one full game and, at less than 100 percent physically, was held to 69 yards in a loss to Washington State.
Whether he is at full health or not, the Washington upset marked his return to triple-digit performances and game-changing touchdowns.
“He goes out there from start to finish and pours his heart out for his teammates,” Shaw said. “I don’t know if you could ask anything more of a football player. I don’t know if you can find a better football player in America than Bryce Love.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback K.J. Costello has taken over the starting role. He protected the ball well against Washington, completing 16 of 27 passes for 211 yards, with no interceptions.
Cal’s offense has potential, too.
Running back Patrick Laird, who started the season as a third-stringer, had 33 carries for 214 yards and a touchdown as Cal beat last-place Oregon State 37-23 before the bye week.
Sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers, inconsistent this season, thrived as well, going 24-of-30 passing for 259 yards and two touchdowns.
The fact that Cal is in the hunt for the postseason is a testament to its toughness in the first season under head coach Justin Wilcox.
Cal has seen season-ending injuries to 11 players, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, including veteran leaders in starting linebacker Devante Downs, receiver Demetris Robertson and running back Tre Watson. Robertson (a former five-star recruit) and Watson were supposed to be premier playmakers for the offense.
Instead, tailbacks Laird and Vic Enwere, and receivers like Kanawai Noa have done more than just fill in admirably.
“It’ll be another surreal moment to experience this season,” Laird said of the Big Game. “I’m sure it’ll be cool when the time hits to run out there with the first-string offense. A running back at Cal, playing against Stanford, I’m still living in my dream right now.”
Stanford leads the series against Cal 57-43-10 and has won the past seven.