Stanford coach David Shaw attributed last week's upset loss to the rigors of playing in the Pac-12, a conference he believes gets tougher as the season progresses.
No matter the reason, the defeat put a severe dent in the Rose Bowl hopes for the 10th-ranked Cardinal, who host California on Saturday in the 116th edition of The Big Game.
Stanford (8-2, 6-2) controlled its own destiny in the Pac-12 North and had a clear path to hosting the conference title game after beating then-No. 2 Oregon 26-20 on Nov. 7.
But after last Saturday's 20-17 loss at USC, it now needs to beat Cal and hope the Ducks fall to either Arizona this week or Oregon State in their season finale to win the division.
The Cardinal, who close their season by hosting Notre Dame on Nov. 30, had won three straight tough contests prior to last week's loss, beating then-No. 9 UCLA on Oct. 19 and winning at Oregon State on Oct. 26 before knocking off Oregon.
"November in this conference, there's no comparison to any other conference in the country," Shaw said. "People can say whatever they want to say, it's not even close.
"You have to come to play in November. Everywhere you play, everybody you play, you're going to get a heck of a game."
Tyler Gaffney rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns last week, but the Cardinal committed a season-worst three turnovers and had a field goal attempt blocked for the second straight game.
"We didn't make enough plays offensively," Shaw said. "When we did make plays, they didn't result in points. That's not going to win in this conference."
Stanford's chances of appearing in a fourth consecutive BCS bowl seem in doubt, but Shaw isn't about to let his players feel sorry for themselves -- especially with them facing the school's most storied rival this week.
"They don't have a choice in their mood," Shaw said. "It's The Big Game, and it's at home. There's going to be energy, there's going to be fire. If it's not there during the week, it's our job as coaches to manufacture it."
The Cardinal have plenty riding on Saturday's outcome, while the Bears know they're coming in as a heavy underdog with a disappointing campaign winding down -- and that's just fine with them.
"You can go into the game with the 'we have nothing to lose' mentality," coach Sonny Dykes said.
Cal (1-10, 0-8) has lost plenty in Dykes' first season at the helm, including last week's 41-24 defeat at Colorado. It has dropped nine straight since beating Portland State of the FCS on Sept. 7.
"It's just kinda been one of those years, the perfect storm where we haven't caught any breaks," Dykes said. "That's football. We have to make our breaks."
One positive has been true freshman quarterback Jared Goff, whose 3,314 yards are 186 short of setting the single-season school record set by Pat Barnes in 1996.
Cal, ranked 10th in the nation with an average of 333.4 passing yards, faces a Stanford defense that is ninth in the conference with 253.9 allowed per game.
"We have to play a tough, physical 60 minutes of incredible football. Purely toughness on every single play," Goff said. "The struggles are really bringing us together as a team. Coming from the underdog scenario we are in gives us a little extra energy. We have nothing to lose. We are going to go in and fight."
Though the Bears set a season high with 197 yards on the ground last week, Stanford is tied for third in the nation in rush defense, giving up an average of 91.1 yards.
"Stanford stops the ball as well as anyone in college football," Dykes said. "But we think we've got some opportunities to run it."
The Cardinal have won three straight meetings after dropping seven of the previous eight.
Top 25 Overview
The Cardinal lost control of the North Division with their loss to USC. But they get a significantly weakened Cal team in The Big Game. All Stanford can do is win out and hope Oregon stumbles in the final two weeks. For Cal, which doesn't play in Week 14, this likely brings an end to a tumultuous first year for coach Sonny Dykes.