The Holiday Bowl matchup between the California Golden Bears and Texas Longhorns is probably one of the best non-BCS bowl games..and it will be better than at least three of the BCS bowl games. Both teams possess the ability to explode on game-changing plays, and both teams are far, far better than their 7-5 mark suggests.
Such strong teams have visited the Holiday Bowl in the past, and some of the stakes are the same. As with any bowl game, winning gives the graduating players something to remember. It gives a conference—and the programs involved—bragging rights and possibly a move up the league's pecking order. And reaping the monetary rewards is always a fun perk (for the Holiday Bowl the payout is $2.35 million).
These two teams, however, raise the stakes.
At various times over the past decade, California and Texas rubbed shoulders as two of the elite programs in college football. The Longhorns, under coach Mack Brown, established a Big 12 dynasty of sorts, brought home a National Championship and garnered a lot of loathing (the hallmark for whether a team is successful).
The Bears, under coach Jeff Tedford, boasted a winning season eight straight years and won five out of their seven bowl appearances.
The 2010 season marked a low point for both teams. Cal and Texas both finished 5-7. Both missed the postseason for the first time in almost a decade.
This 2011 season demonstrated several things. First, both Cal and Texas have the ability to return to their former privileged status. They have the recruits (especially Texas) and they have the top-notch facilities (especially Cal). They have large and devoted fan bases. They have money.
They need to validate their 2011 efforts with a postseason win against a respectable opponent.
A Holiday Bowl win would signal the re-emergence of at least one of these programs to their previous elite status. It would tip potential star recruits their way. It would give them momentum and confidence for the future.
For the Longhorns, it might be the win that propels them back on track to face down Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. It might be a fitting farewell to a winning coach. For Cal, it might be a long-awaited revenge for a 2004 trick by that very same coach. It might be the win necessary for competing with Oregon and USC as the top team in the Pac-12 after Stanford's Andrew Luck leaves.
Either way, this matchup will have repercussions not just of conference importance, but national importance. A contender will be reborn for the 2012 season.
For the Holiday Bowl, the stakes have never been higher.