BERKELEY -- In 2004, Jeff Tedford, Aaron Rodgers and the California football team were not only smelling roses; the school had already printed out t-shirts with the logos of the team and the Rose Bowl intertwined. For the first time since December of 1958, a trip to Pasadena was a lead-pipe cinch.
A 10-1 record -- Cal's best since 1991 -- was marred only by a narrow 23-17 loss to then-No. 1 USC in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a game which ended with the Bears stranded just nine yards from goal line. Rodgers -- who had completed his first 21 passes -- saw a third-and-goal missile zip by a diving Geoff McArthur in the west end zone. After an incomplete pass to Jonathan Makonnen with 1:16 left, the Trojans took over and ran the clock. Cal's perfect season was dashed, but the Bears' hopes for the Rose Bowl were still very much alive.
After winning the next seven games, Cal was ranked No. 4 in the nation, and sat in the cat-bird seat for an at-large BCS bid. As the Pac-10 runner-up, the Bears would have first crack at the Rose Bowl, with USC playing in the National Championship Game.
History -- and Texas head coach Mack Brown -- had other ideas. Brown politicked his way into the Granddaddy of 'Em All, and his pleas to other coaches knocked the Bears down as far as No. 7, as voted by some coaches, as the Longhorns got a boost in the final Coaches Poll of the season. Not even a resounding 41-6 thumping of rival Stanford in the 107th Big Game could overcome the voting swing, as Texas was chosen to play in the Rose Bowl instead of Cal.
A despondent Cal settled for a Holiday Bowl match-up with Texas Tech, in which the Bears limped to a 45-31 loss over the Red Raiders -- then coached by newly-minted Washington State head coach Mike Leach. The Longhorns went on to beat Michigan 38-37 on New Year's Day. Following the season, the Associated Press poll withdrew from the BCS.
Cal has not come anywhere close to smelling the roses since.
"2004 is a long time ago. I don't remember much about it except for feeling like there was a great opportunity there. We all felt like we were going to the Rose Bowl," Tedford said. "However it unfolded, we were left scratching our heads as to how that happened. But that was a long time ago. I felt bad for our team because I really felt like we deserved to be in the Rose Bowl that year, but we're in 2011 now and it is a whole different situation."
Six years later, the Bears and the Longhorns will finally get to hash things out in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Calif., on Dec. 28.
"That was my dream school, growing up," said Cal starting quarterback Zach Maynard. "That's what I wanted to be. I love Texas. Growing up watching Vince Young play, it was like, man, that's the greatest quarterback I've ever seen in my life. I loved Texas. They always won. It was a huge football school, somewhere I wanted to be. It looked like a place I wanted to be."
After winning three of their past four games -- the lone loss being a narrow three-point defeat to the Cardinal -- the Bears are looking at this game as not as a preview of a future match-up between the programs, but just as a chance to prove once again that they're a team on the rise.
"That's a ranked team, so it'll be huge for us to beat a ranked team, just in general, and for coach Tedford as well," Maynard said. "That'll be huge for us, going into this game and ending up with a win, finishing the season up right and going into next season, with our last game as a win, and also a bowl game, trying to get that ring."
While no current players were on the roster during that fateful season, Tedford isn't the only one in Strawberry Canyon with a long memory.
"Honestly, I'm more of the philosophy of, no matter who we play, we attack them the same," said defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, who was a defensive end on the 2004-05 team. "We're just excited for this opportunity and that's an awesome program to play, for two great traditions to go at it."
Senior left tackle Mitchell Schwartz was not on that team, but he played alongside players who were.
"I think it would be cool. There's not much talk about it on our team. I think it's more the fans that feel gypped, that feel slighted, and I'm sure coach Tedford probably feels some of that still, but he probably will never admit it," Schwartz said on Friday. "It's the type of thing -- it's the same thing with the Big Game -- where it takes on a whole new meaning once you get away from the actual team and see how big an impact it has on the fans. I know, just following college football, there was a lot of outcry on that, so I think it'll be cool to kind of build it up for TV and that type of thing. Whenever you can get a little bit of added incentive, a fun little detail to the game to kind of add on top of it, it should be a good game."
As soon as the Bears started this brief spurt of pre-bowl practices on Friday, Lupoi brought a bit more than his trademark intensity to Witter Rugby Field. Whether it be the fact that dominoes are indeed falling in the recruiting game, or the fact that even early on, the team had an inkling that it would have a date with the Longhorns, Lupoi was in full force, yelling at all the players during warm-ups, 'Get your mind right. Now.'
"That's the message that bowl preparation starts right now," Lupoi said. "We're out here for one reason, and that's to get better. There's always room for improvement. That means that we cannot afford to take two or three periods to warm up. That's what the stretch is for. This is the time. Get ready now. When Period One begins, we're going after this practice with a purpose."
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