California at Stanford: The Big Game Preview and Gambling Lines

My father was an old-fashioned sort who complained of playoff seedings and championships and Super Bowls taking up way too much of every pundit’s time…in addition to the energy of most fans. “What about the game, that day, that afternoon?” he would ask. “Isn’t it worth anything by itself?”

I was never sure if I agreed with that or not. You could take any vintage historical setting where people supposedly cared only about the game that day – say a Dad taking his kid to see an NHL team for the 1st time – and if an announcement came over the loudspeakers that “by agreement of the 2 clubs, tonight’s outcome will not count toward the standings” then some of the magic would be gone. The push to qualify for a title bid is something that helps keep every athlete (and every fan) motivated.

Rivalry games are an exception. When it comes to a blood rivalry, the standings, the stats, the postseason bids are often a moot point. Coaches have lost jobs following successful seasons because they didn’t beat a bitter rival, and other coaches have kept their jobs thanks to beating the arch-enemy during an otherwise dreary campaign.

Heck, few people remember what the Ivy League standings were back when Harvard made its epic comeback to “Beat Yale 29-29,” and nobody cares what the California Golden Bears’ record was when this play happened at the end of The Big Game against Stanford in the 80s:

Least of all John Elway, Stanford’s QB at the time. Elway is still ticked-off that the referee didn’t rule the Bears down at midfield, even though the Cardinal band running onto the gridiron could have resulted in an automatic-touchdown ruling anyway.

Will there be another extraordinary finish to 2019’s version of The Big Game? Or will the 4th quarter turn into a snoozer? Let’s take a closer look at Stanford and Cal’s seasons to-date and try to draw some conclusions.

Who: California Golden Bears at Stanford Cardinal

When: Saturday, November 23rd, 4 PM EST

Where: Stanford Stadium, Stanford, CA

Lines: Cal (+3) at Stanford (-3) / O/U Total: (42)

Cal at Stanford: 2019 Big Game Preview and Angles

That pitch for “focusing on an afternoon’s game only” in the intro? It was to soften you up so that you’ll still be interested in Stanford vs Cal. Neither program has had an easy row to hoe in Pac-12 play…in fact, each is still fighting to become bowl-eligible.

Stanford may have had the worst of it. The Cardinal is having 1 of its worst autumns in recent memory, winning only 4 out of 10 games despite starting the year with veteran star QB K.J. Costello behind center.

Costello may have begun the 2019-20 season with the 1st string but he’s spent a good chunk of it in the trainer’s room after suffering painful, scary injuries to his throwing hand and his noggin. Stanford has struggled to move the ball with a variety of QBs (including a banged-up Costello, who’s managed to play 5 times so far) and has lost 3 out of the last 4 games after a rousing defeat of Washington. Run blocking – the heart and soul of the program under David Shaw – has been a big problem, and there’s been no dominant defense to fall back on when the attack won’t click.

Saturday’s hosts have perked-up whenever their NFL-prospect passer has been cleared to perform. Costello found Connor Wedington 8 times on 10/26 as Stanford coasted to a victory over the Arizona Wildcats.

Why is a 5-5 and somewhat-steadier Cal team a field-goal underdog, apart from playing The Big Game on the road this year? Probably because California’s QB-injury situation isn’t any clearer than that of Stanford as betting opens for the week. More from SI:

Quarterback Chase Garbers and running back Christopher Brown Jr. were both injured during Saturday’s 41-17 loss to USC. Neither practiced on Monday because of unspecified injuries, and both are questionable for Saturday’s game. Safety Ashtyn Davis and wide receiver Kekoa Crawford are also questionable for Saturday’s game with medical concerns, and linebacker Evan Tattersall suffered a scary injury Saturday, although he seems to be recovering well. So Cal (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12) is likely to be shorthanded on Saturday.

Stanford (4-6, 3-5) has had its share of injuries too, and, like Cal, the Cardinal has an uncertain quarterback situation. It’s not known whether Davis Mills or K.J. Costello will be the starting quarterback for the Cardinal.

Stanford has won 9 of the last 10 Big Games, and there will be a rush on Cardinal bets (moneyline and ATS) in addition to a rising O/U later this week if there’s even a hint that Costello could be ready to go. Cal would see less of a “California gold rush” if Garbers is cleared to perform, mostly because USC’s thrashing of the Bears last Saturday has convinced Las Vegas that the program is 2nd or 3rd-tier in the P5.

But I’m not sure the bad defense vs USC wasn’t an anomaly of sorts. Cal’s secondary covered very well in a win over Washington State in the previous scrum. I’m not rarin’ to pick the Over (42) but I’ve got an idea that line-movement throughout the week could be the ticket to making a high-% pick against the spread.

Predicting the Stanford-Cal Outcome ATS in 2019

It’s unlikely that the spread will still be (+/- 3) when you find this article, unless you’re catching it soon after publish. That’s good news, since it’s hard to figure a probably winner on the current line.

If the spread moves in Stanford’s direction without Costello being unequivocally declared healthy, that’s when to move on Cal’s side of the market. Bettors watched USC’s Kedon Slovis throw it all over the Bear defense last Saturday and may not be ready to take the overall competence of the squad’s DBs in ’19 into account.

But suppose Chase Garbers is the 1st to hint that he might play this weekend, and the line inches closer to a pick’em. That’s when to take Stanford ATS. Garbers relies on Cal’s ground game to open-up play action opportunities and the Bears might not be able to get enough positive yards on 1st-down running plays to force the Cardinal to bring 8 men into the box.

Stanford’s WR corps remains long and talented no matter who is taking snaps, and the host receivers are likely to make the difference with clutch catches in the biggest game (the BIG game) of the year for both schools.

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