Cal's football team has made things tough on oddsmakers this season.
Good luck trying to determine if the Bears are the favorite or underdog, whether they will be playing in a close game or a blowout. Cal has kept the college football world guessing this season with a collection of performances that have ranged from dominant to dismal.
"It's the strangest season I have seen in Cal football in quite awhile," said Cal radio analyst Troy Taylor, the Bears' all-time leading passer who also was a member of the Bears coaching staff from 1996-99. "It's very strange because you just don't know what to expect."
The Bears enter Wednesday's Poinsettia Bowl against Utah with a record of 8-4. Some of those wins have come against inferior competition but their last two were against ranked teams. Cal played its best game of the season in a 34-28 win over Stanford in the Big Game. Then the Bears turned around and played their worst in a 42-10 loss at Washington to close out the regular season.
All four of Cal's losses have been lopsided. The Bears lost to Oregon (42-3), USC (30-3), Oregon State (31-14) and Washington.
"A completely different football team showed up in those (losses)," said TV analyst Mike Pawlawski, another former Cal quarterback. "That's the mystery. It's shocking to me."
So just how good is Cal? An 8-4 record is a good season by any measurement, but does the uneven nature of the four losses take away from the eight wins? The Bears appeared as though they answered that question when they slowed down the Cardinal, which entered the game hotter than any team in the country. But the question resurfaced again after the beatdown in Seattle.
How can a team that has looked so sharp at times, especially near the end of the season, appear so overmatched at others?
"I really can't explain it and I don't like to see it," Cal quarterback Kevin Riley said. "Our offense, defense and special teams all feed off each other. When one doesn't go well, the others don't go well and we kind of fall into a hole and we can't get out of it. We've done some good things this year and we've done some really bad things."
Some hypothesize that the Bears simply surrender once things don't go their way, but there is evidence to suggest otherwise. Stanford raced out to an early 14-0 lead in the Big Game and the Bears came back to win. And Cal allowed Minnesota to tie the game after leading 21-7 only to answer with two touchdowns for a 35-21 victory.
"The thing I always look for is whether we are playing hard," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "From the outside looking in, you might say that they didn't play hard. That hasn't been the case. That's always been a constant. They've always competed hard."
Tedford admits digesting the up-and-down nature of the season has been difficult, especially because he isn't used to being on the wrong side of a rout. Three of this year's four losses are by a bigger margin than any defeats in Tedford's previous seven seasons as Cal's coach. Tedford entered the season with a career record of 59-30, and only two of the losses were by more than two touchdowns.
"We've never had games kind of get away from us like that," Tedford said. "Whether you lose by three or 28, you're still looking at the same issues. But when the score gets like that, the main thing you want to look at is effort to make sure the guys are continuing to compete."
Why have Cal's results been so unpredictable? Nobody seems to have a magic answer. Tedford says the Bears simply ran into some hot opponents that out-executed them in their four losses. But for a team that began the season ranked 12th in the nation and was regarded as a Pac-10 contender, the idea that they could be outplayed so badly in some games is simply hard for some to accept.
"Part of it seems like a momentum thing," Taylor said. "It seems like if they get it going early, they seem to play pretty well. But if they struggle, it seems to carry on. I don't have an answer. It's been a surprising year."