BERKELEY, Calif. – Just a few years ago, Oregon and California appeared to be on parallel paths as up-and-coming programs seeking to challenge Southern California's dominance on the West Coast.
Oh how things have changed.
The teams head into Saturday night's meeting in Berkeley on starkly divergent journeys. The Golden Bears (3-7, 2-5 Pac-12) are staggering to the finish of another disappointing season, assured of missing a bowl game for the second time in three years.
The second-ranked Ducks (9-0, 6-0) are once again in position to complete a perfect regular season and make it back to the national championship game for the second time in three seasons.
"Everybody wants to be a contender every year like Oregon has been the past few years," said Cal quarterback Allan Bridgford, who is likely to get the start in place of injured Zach Maynard this week. "Right now here at Cal, we're dealing with adversity. But we have a lot of character on this team and a lot of people will help us get through that. We're going to these last two games, work as hard as we can to win these two and get ready for a big offseason to work for next year so nothing like this ever happens again."
These programs weren't always so far apart. In fact, when they met in 2009, the Bears were the top 10 power looking to compete on the national stage, while the Ducks were unranked and trying to find their way under first-year coach Chip Kelly.
Cal had even won the previous three meetings but was no match that day, losing 42-3 in Eugene. The fates of the two programs have been almost that lopsided ever since. That started the Ducks on a run where they have gone 41-5, starting with that win, riding a fast-break, dynamic offense to become a perennial power on the national scene.
"They never stopped, they just kept going," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford, a former offensive coordinator for the Ducks. "It's a great program. They invest a lot in their program without a doubt and they have recruited extremely well, obviously. They've been able to keep it at a high level. ... When Chip came, he took it to a new level."
The Bears are just 20-25 starting with that loss, having missed out on bowls in 2010 and this year and falling near the bottom of the Pac-12 North. That descent has put Tedford's job status in jeopardy as he has been unable to duplicate his early success at Cal when his team was the top challenger in the conference to USC.
"I like Jeff Tedford a lot. We worked together for a long time," said Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who worked with Tedford at Oregon before Tedford left for Cal after the 2001 season.
"I've called him and texted him a couple of times throughout the season just to, you never want to say 'How you doing?', 'You all right?', 'Keep your head up', but just kind of a shout out to let him know that we're out here and understand that you go through tough seasons. But I don't wish him any luck this week."
The Bears might need more than luck to compete with the Ducks. With Maynard unlikely to play because of an injured left knee, star receiver Keenan Allen out with his own left knee injury, starting tackle Matt Summers-Gavin questionable and the status of a handful of key defensive players in doubt because of injuries, Cal is far from being in its best shape.
Bridgford has completed just 4 of 16 passes in spot duty, putting even more pressure on the defense to slow Kenjon Barner and a Ducks offense averaging 54.3 points per game.
"It's a lot easier said than done," safety Josh Hill said. "If it were that easy, they wouldn't be as good as they are. We know it's a challenge for us as far as the speed. One mistake for us can lead to six points the other way. A lot of defenses lack that kind of speed to match up so you have to be that much more perfect."
Cal is one of just two teams to hold Oregon under 20 points the past three seasons, with their 15-13 loss at home two years ago marking the lowest output for the Ducks in that span.
"They bring guys from everywhere, their linebackers are extremely physical and get involved in the run game, as well as their safeties," Barner said. "We're going to have to be on our toes."
But this Oregon team might be even more explosive than the one that made it to the title game two years ago. Barner has rushed for 1,295 yards and 19 touchdowns, DeAnthony Thomas has 785 yards of offense and 11 TDs, and freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota is 39 of 49 for 486 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions the past three weeks.
"I don't know if I ever have seen something quite prolific as how they make it look," Tedford said. "It really is something else."