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California Golden Bears head coach Jeff Tedford claps during warm-ups before playing the University of Southern California on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011, at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

When Jeff Tedford jogs onto the field Saturday evening at Stanford Stadium, he'll attempt to defy odds considered long, if not indomitable.

It's a predicament he knows well, having met it nearly a decade ago.

Back then, in 2002, Tedford's intent was to revive the Cal football program, which had lost 10 of its 11 games the previous season.

This time, his objective is to win the Big Game, to engineer the defeat of a Stanford team that only a week ago had national championship aspirations.

"The biggest difference is, this week is singular," Tedford said Thursday morning, after practice. "This is about one game, and all that goes with it."

The coach once again seeks to shock and amaze, to exceed the wildest expectations of the men and women behind the program, as he did in '02, when he brought an instant winner to a place where the football had alternated, for the better part of 40 years, from wretched to mediocre to shameful.

That early success, against improbable odds, quickly endeared him to those who obsess over all things Golden Bears.

But after five unremarkable seasons, including this one, many of those same folks are displeased with Tedford. The thrill is gone, and they wonder if he can bring it back. They are longing for a reason to believe he can.

Beating Stanford could be that reason.


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"It would be great," Tedford said. "To play a team like Stanford, to go in and get a victory, it would be a huge reward for our players."

It also would be an emphatic response to those who no longer perceive that Cal employs a top-tier coach. If Tedford, whose reputation was built on potent offenses, can devise and scheme and motivate these Bears -- 18-point underdogs -- past the eighth-ranked Cardinal on The Farm, he might unlock the same door he opened in '02.

That door allowed Cal's alumni to dream of the alma mater being a consistent top-25 program often capable of challenging for the conference championship.

Tedford, after all, immediately fixed foundering quarterback Kyle Boller. After throwing 36 touchdown passes and 38 interceptions over the previous three seasons, Boller in 2002 threw 28 TDs and 10 picks, becoming a first-round NFL draft pick.

Boller was replaced by Aaron Rodgers, the Tedford discovery who in 2003 quarterbacked the Bears to one of the most satisfying triumphs in the modern era: an overtime win over almighty USC.

When Cal followed up with a 10-2 season in 2004, Pac-10 competitors began trembling and the alumni began fantasizing. Maybe the school finally had found a coach capable of building an elite program without sacrificing academic integrity.

Tedford was such a hot NFL candidate that athletic director Sandy Barbour, three months into the job, scrambled to sign him to a new five-year contract, basically doubling his base salary to roughly $1.5 million per year.

It was as if Tedford had reinvented football -- when actually he merely reset the possibilities at Cal.

Heady days in Berkeley, those were.

Maddening days, these are.

The Bears are 6-4, 3-4 in the newly created Pac-12. A 23-6 victory over lowly Oregon State last week is their most impressive of the season inasmuch as it snapped a four-game losing streak to the Beavers.

Moreover, Cal since the start of 2007 has lost 23 of 43 conference games, falling back into the rut of mediocrity so familiar to longtime observers but so beneath the Tedford of 2002-06. Faith has given way to doubt, as droves of Cal fans have gone back into their comfortable shell of well-educated pessimism.

"In the beginning, when we got here, this was a program and a mentality that was in the doldrums," Tedford said. "Everything about it was. We had to change a lot of things. The challenge wasn't just to win a game but to create an entire mindset."

Then as now, for beating Stanford would alter the mindset of those -- some of whom have generated Internet campaigns -- who believe Cal can do better than Tedford.

No Old Blue of sound mind could have a better football fantasy than beating this Cardinal team, which has spent its season making national noise and owning the local headlines. It has the marquee quarterback, Andrew Luck. It has the top-10 ranking. It was 9-0 before falling to Oregon last weekend.

Cal types, meanwhile, have groaned and stewed. They've had to navigate this vast sea of Stanford buzz, the nonstop chatter assaulting their ears, the creeping inferiority complex playing with their minds, the cold reality tugging at their hearts.

A win Saturday would make misery stop. It also would restore some vanity for Old Blues, while providing enough momentum to carry Tedford into, well, at least 2012.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.