It's only mid-October, but it's already rivalry time in the Bay Area. Tomorrow will mark the earliest in the year that Stanford and Cal have faced off since the very first Big Game in March of 1892.
Every year, rivalry games bring up the phrase "throw out the record books." This comes from the notion that, unlike every other game, a rivalry causes so many crazy things to happen that it is almost impossible to predict what will happen. There are, of course, many examples of the craziness of this rivalry, from The Play in 1982 to the wild final minute in 1990.
However, in this case, we are going to take a look at the record books to debunk the myth that this rivalry is totally unpredictable.
1) Home-field advantage: When in doubt, go with the home team, right? Not exactly. Over the course of this rivalry, home teams have only a tiny advantage at 53-50-11. Looking more specifically at the last 20 meetings - a good sample size that encompasses win streaks by both teams - home teams are 11-9. In the last 10 Big Games at Memorial Stadium, each team has won five times.
2) Records don't matter: There have been six meetings all-time between the two teams when only one of the two is ranked. The ranked team is 5-1 in those games. In the last 20 years, the team that enters the game with the better record is 15-4 (both teams were 7-3 entering the game in 2009). Of the four wins by the team with the worse record, only the 2007 Stanford upset happened in the last 13 years, and two of the four were teams with almost identical records (3-7 Cal beat 3-6-1 Stanford in 1994, and 5-5 Stanford beat 6-4 Cal in 1996).
3) No matter what, the games are close: Of the last 20 Big Games, half have been decided by 12 points or more. That's not too different from the norm for these teams, as each team has had 12 of its last 20 games overall decided by 12 points or more, and that includes a few games against cupcakes.
Of course, this isn't to say that this game won't be close or that there won't be an unexpected result. It's just a reminder that, once all the on-campus stunts and fan bickering finally give way to the actual game, it will probably end up just like any other game. And this year, it figures to be a pretty good one.
Looking for a trend to buy into? Focus on the running games. In the Jeff Tedford era, Cal is 61-10 when rushing for 160+ yards and 21-42 the rest of the time. This has been especially true so far in 2012, as the Golden Bears have racked up 793 rushing yards in their three wins (264 yards per game) compared to just 570 rushing yards in their four losses (142 ypg).
This matchup will be interesting considering the Stanford defense is ranked in the top 10 in both rushing yards allowed per game and per carry. In fact, teams rarely even test the Stanford run defense, as Cardinal opponents only run on 39 percent of plays, the third-lowest percentage in the nation, and get just 24 percent of their total yards via the run, seventh-lowest in the nation.
Meanwhile, the Cal run defense has been middling this year, averaging 4.2 yards per carry, but the unit has improved of late, limiting its past three opponents to 2.8 yards per carry. The Stanford run offense has been a good barometer of the team's success, as it has averaged 3.1 yards per carry in its two losses and 4.8 yards per carry in its four wins.
Look for the winner of this year's Big Game to be the team that has more success running the ball. After all, the past 11 Big Games have all been won by the team with more rushing yards.