Winless in league play and eliminated from the postseason, Cal is playing for pride and the future Saturday at Colorado. But there is an intriguing backdrop thanks to a series of events that took place 11 months ago in Berkeley and Boulder.
During her search for a coach to replace Jeff Tedford, Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour interviewed Mike MacIntyre, who had just orchestrated a stunning turnaround at San Jose State.
Barbour ultimately passed on MacIntyre and instead chose Louisiana Tech's Sonny Dykes, renown for his creative offense and entertaining style of play.
Four days after Cal hired Dykes, Colorado grabbed MacIntyre.
And here we are.
It would be easy to paint Cal vs. Colorado as a referendum on the decision to hire Dykes instead of MacIntyre -- as the Barbour Bowl -- but that's an unfair depiction. It's too early to render final judgment on Dykes and too simplistic to base such sweeping conclusions on the result of a single Saturday.
But perception matters. It matters in fundraising, it matters in recruiting, and it matters in the general sense of getting things done -- all of which raise the stakes this week for Dykes and, especially, for Barbour.
Among the Cal football constituency, there is growing unease with Dykes. No reasonable observers expected the Bears to contend for the Pac-12 North title given their inexperience and limited roster, and the spate of injuries have compounded the problems.
But the Bears (1-9, 0-7) have been shockingly bad -- unimaginably bad. They are blown out regularly and have yet to defeat a major college opponent. They're atrocious on defense and not as productive offensively as expected given Dykes' track record. In a 62-28 loss to USC last week, they allowed two punt return touchdowns and a blocked punt return for a score.
Dykes might ultimately prove a shrewd hire. But lacking hard evidence, Old Blues have only hope and faith at this point.
A loss to Colorado -- to the man Cal could have hired, the man who beat Dykes head-to-head last season -- would be cause for more skepticism and anxiety.
(Granted, MacIntyre has the same number of conference wins as Dykes: Zero. But Colorado has been in the gutter for years and entered the season with subterranean expectations.)
Barbour has even more at stake Saturday than Dykes, partly because he was her hand-picked choice and partly because of the mounting tally of missteps on her resume.
Barbour's fiscal mismanagement contributed to a budget crisis that nearly caused the Bears to eliminate four sports and demote a fifth.
She was heavily involved in the decision to spend $474 million on the new training center and Memorial Stadium renovation -- a price tag that now threatens to undermine the athletic department's future.
She also is responsible for the football program's abysmal graduation rates, which embarrassed the university and could have been avoided with greater oversight.
With so many messes to clean and so little support inside the Cal athletic community, Barbour's position is precarious. The last thing she needs is for Dykes -- the most important hire in her nine years in charge -- to lose to the coach she didn't want.