The Big Game comes a bit early this year for California, and this one is a lot Bigger than Stanford's Nov. 20th visit to Berkeley.
This Bigger Game will take place behind the scenes over the next six weeks, culminating on Dec. 15.
That's when it will get a lot easier to steal Jeff Tedford, perhaps the hottest young coach in America, away from Cal.
That's why he had special triggers written into his contract. His $1 million buyout is cut in half if ground isn't broken on a much-discussed, long-delayed $140 million or so facilities improvement project by Dec. 15.
Moreover, a stipulation that he can't take a job at another Pac-10 school is voided.
It's a near certainty that construction won't start until the new year -- if then, considering the fundraising struggles. That means Tedford -- the 42-year-old quarterback guru who has transformed the Bears from a 1-10 laughingstock to a potential top-five, BCS bowl team in three years -- will be available for $500,000. A pittance.
That is, if a team can lure him away. The Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons and Nebraska couldn't last year, nor could Kentucky the year before. He's repeatedly said he's not interested in the NFL.
Oh, but Washington, with its big budget, tradition, state-of-the-art facilities (excluding an ugly track around the football field at Husky Stadium) and deep-pocketed -- not to mention frustrated -- boosters; that may be another story.
Yet the one thing that has become clear about Tedford since he took over is that he's no climber, nor does he appear to be remarkably motivated by money. He's got a wife and two high-school aged children. After growing up in a broken home himself, he's unlikely to jump at just any relocation without weighing his options carefully.
Cal, on the other hand, after being previously jilted by Bruce Snyder and Steve Mariucci, won't let him go without a fight. New athletic director Sandy Barbour might find it hard to raise a penny for the financially beleaguered department if that happens.
The driven, laconic, detail-oriented Tedford holds all the face cards as he prepares his No. 8 Bears for a visit from No. 21 Arizona State. "Ted Head" T-shirts and bobblehead dolls, which play against his no-nonsense, dry countenance, present him as a budding icon in Berkeley.
He remembers where he came from, though. It wasn't easy getting to a point where he can nearly write his own ticket.
The youngest of five children, his parents divorced before he turned 10. His father, with whom he remains mostly estranged, was an alcoholic. He bounced around from home-to-home in Southern California, raised mostly by his elder brother, Dennis, with just enough money to get by.
Sports became his refuge. Though just 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, he became an acclaimed prep quarterback, starting opposite a guy named John Elway in a high school all-star game.
While Elway became a superstar at Stanford and then the NFL, Tedford went to Fresno State, by way of Cerritos College, and then spent six years as a backup in the CFL.
When his playing career ended, he had a young family to take care of, so the man who would become America's hottest coach sold bulk cardboard in Fresno. Football was his passion, but coaching was a risky, migratory profession where nothing is guaranteed.
Once he made the leap, which meant tough financial times while he spent two years as a volunteer assistant at Fresno State, his climb was steady. After nine successful years as an offensive coordinator at Fresno State and Oregon, where he groomed future NFL quarterbacks like Trent Dilfer and Joey Harrington, Cal came calling.
He took over a team that was totally lost after going winless in the Pac-10; a program that hadn't posted a winning season since 1993 and was serving NCAA sanctions. His first year, the Bears went 7-5 and quarterback Kyle Boller transformed from bust to first-round NFL draft pick, and Tedford won conference Coach of the Year honors.
With just seven starters back the following season, the Bears beat eventual national champion USC, went 8-6 and won their first bowl game in a decade.
Now 5-1, the only loss coming by six points at top-ranked USC, the former reclamation project has become a juggernaut, leading the nation in total offense and ranking 13th in scoring defense. Tedford's junior quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, a junior college transfer who no one else recruited, is second in the nation in passing efficiency and will likely be a first-round pick if he opts to enter the NFL draft a year early.
While some might snort at a football coach essentially holding a school hostage over a snazzier stadium, weight room and training facility, Tedford's impact can even be quantified in dollars.
Season ticket purchases have doubled to about 32,000. Revenue from corporate sponsorships has increased 40 percent to approximately $4 million.
Average attendance at Memorial Stadium, now 64,424 and ranked third in the conference, has nearly doubled since 2001, when the Bears ranked ninth. That means at least $2.5 million more in revenue, based on five home games.
Or more than triple Tedford's annual salary of $800,000, though he stands to make $1.2 million this season if the Bears end up in a BCS bowl game, aka, the Rose Bowl.
But that won't be the biggest game of the season, either.
The biggest game will be finding a way to hold onto Tedford, which should be a prime time event by Dec. 15.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.