BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) California has returned to relevance and respectability in Sonny Dykes' second season as coach. Stanford has slipped back to mediocrity under David Shaw this year.
The surprising developments on both sides of San Francisco Bay give the 117th Big Game quite the twist.
In a change from recent seasons, Saturday's meeting between Stanford (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12) and Cal (5-5, 3-5) has big implications for both teams. The winner will become bowl-eligible, and the loser will be left scrambling to seal that important postseason distinction in next week's season finale.
''We've talked a lot about steps this year. It's kind of the next step for us,'' Dykes said.
Making a bowl game means more than just a chance to play another game. It's an extra two weeks of practices, which is especially important for returning players, and added exposure for the program - which never hurts in recruiting.
Dykes surmised that Stanford has had about a season's worth of practices just preparing for BCS bowl games each of the past four years. Going to a bowl game also is an experience that players relish and something to show for what they accomplished.
Stanford fifth-year senior nose tackle David Parry, for instance, said the season would be a complete failure if the two-time defending Pac-12 champions didn't even make a bowl game.
Few would disagree with that assessment.
The Cardinal are coming off consecutive losses - to Utah and Oregon - for the first time in five years. They haven't missed a bowl since Jim Harbaugh's second year as coach in 2008, when they lost their final three games to finish 5-7.
The Big Game is Stanford's best chance left to clinch a non-losing record. The Cardinal close their season at No. 11 UCLA (8-2, 5-2) next week, while Cal finishes at home against BYU (6-4) in a non-conference game.
Shaw is looking at the Big Game a different way. Stanford has won the past four meetings against Cal, and he sees Saturday as a chance to keep the coveted Axe for a fifth straight year.
''That's the real motivation for this week - we have a trophy on the line,'' Shaw said. ''This is our closest rival.''
Here are some things to watch when Cal hosts Stanford:
UNBALANCED TEAMS: It'll be strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. Stanford leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense (16.5 points) but has the conference's lowest-scoring offense (23.9 points). The Bears have the Pac-12's second-best scoring offense (40.6 points) behind Oregon and the worst scoring defense (39.7 points).
GOFF'S GREATNESS: Sophomore quarterback Jared Goff could break a couple more Cal records, including one of his own. He's thrown for 3,398 yards, 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions this season. He's one TD pass from Pat Barnes' school record of 31 in 1996 and just shy of his own school record of 3,508 yards passing set as a freshman.
BIG-GAME MONTGOMERY: Stanford's do-it-all playmaker Ty Montgomery has been bottled up in recent weeks as the offense has struggled, but facing Cal could be just the remedy he needs. Montgomery matched a school record with five touchdowns, scoring the first four times he touched the ball, in Stanford's 63-13 win over Cal last season.
PASSING OPPORTUNITIES: Stanford's stagnant passing game, led by inconsistent quarterback Kevin Hogan, has a chance to bust out in a big way. Cal is allowing 375.9 yards passing per game, by far the worst of the 125 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Washington State, which ranks 124th, is giving up 307.8 yards.
WEATHER: Forecast is calling for a 90 percent chance of rain in Berkeley on Saturday morning, with showers tapering off in the afternoon. A slick field could prove problematic for holding on to the ball. Stanford is tied with Washington State for the worst turnover margin (minus-10) in the conference. California (even) is tied for eighth.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP