After a tense, emotional month, Stanford can relax with a rare midseason double-bye -- back-to-back weeks off to prepare for its rugged finish.
Officially, the No. 17 Cardinal has games scheduled for the next two Saturdays, against Washington State and Colorado. The former would be the worst team in the Pac-12 if not for the latter, which is arguably the worst team in any of the six major conferences.
Stanford's players and coaches must treat the opponents with respect and the games with urgency. But we don't. We can consider Washington State and Colorado roadkill for the Cardinal (5-2, 3-1) and cast an eye toward the big picture.
Stanford's baseline is essentially set: Only a monumental upset will prevent it from having seven wins when the stretch-run competition ramps up against No. 7 Oregon State, No. 2 Oregon and UCLA (combined record: 18-2).
At that point, there are four possible outcomes:
1. Stanford sweeps Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA, finishes 10-2, wins the Pac-12 North and plays the South champ for a berth in the Rose Bowl.
2. Stanford wins two of three, finishes 9-3 and accepts an invitation to one of the league's top non-January bowls, the Alamo or Holiday, where it would face a Big 12 opponent.
3. Stanford loses two of three, finishes 8-4 and probably settles for the Sun or Las Vegas Bowl.
4. Stanford gets swept, finishes 7-5 and falls to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (based in San Francisco)
That, in a nutshell, is where things stand for the Cardinal with three games left.
Or five, if you want to be a stickler about it.
Everyone also knows the Bears (3-5, 2-3) can't make the math work unless they beat Oregon or Oregon State (or both).
It's easy to point to the Big Game as the one Cal desperately needed to win to avoid this predicament, but that's actually not the case.
The game Cal desperately needed to win was the first one: the season opener against Nevada.
Had the Bears taken care of business against the Wolf Pack in September (as 91/2-point favorites), they wouldn't have to beat one of the Oregon schools in November.
As far as the postseason is concerned, the Spartans have four wins -- the victory at Texas-San Antonio didn't count because of UTSA's status as a transitional member of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Here's what it means: The Spartans must win two of their final five games to become bowl eligible.
Here's what it really means: The Spartans need to win three of their final five games to become a bowl participant.
With three wins, their non-UTSA record would be 7-4.
That's far more attractive to bowl officials than a non-UTSA record of 6-5, especially for a program with a small fan base and modest tradition that might need to plead its case for an invitation.
(The Western Athletic Conference champion goes to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. All other eligible teams are free agents.)
The next three weeks are vital for the Spartans -- more important, in many respects, than their finishing stretch against BYU and Louisiana Tech.
SJSU is heavily favored (20 points) to beat Texas State on Saturday and will be in a similar position against Idaho and New Mexico State.
Win the games they should win, and the Spartans will have those seven non-UTSA victories in hand entering the final fortnight.