FORT WORTH, Texas California was on the verge of being the nation's No. 1 team in mid-October. Then the Bears lost, and kept losing.
An early comer in the unprecedented trend of No. 2 losers, Cal eventually fell out of poll. Now far from the Bowl Championship Series, the Bears (6-6) go into the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force today with a much more modest goal: trying to avoid a losing record.
"We're not proud of the way we finished the season and we're just looking to get it back," linebacker Greg Van Hoesen said.
"Of course, it hurts just knowing you were that close to being No. 1 and couldn't get it done. But you can't hang on to the past," running back Justin Forsett said. "A lot of teams are home right now, so we're just very fortunate to be in this bowl."
For Air Force (9-3), the Armed Forces Bowl is a natural fit for its first postseason appearance since 2002.
While Cal has lost six of its last seven games, Air Force no longer the triple-option, run-only team like in years past won six of its last seven under first-year coach Troy Calhoun.
"You look at us as a whole, we're a group that's not going to be overly impressive size-wise and speed-wise," Calhoun said. "What we do have is a bunch of kids that are five-star kids. That's how we succeed."
California is making its fifth straight bowl appearance, a first in school history. And the last time the Bears had six straight winning seasons was 1947-52, something they can still accomplish since coach Jeff Tedford took over after a 1-10 season.
The Bears had loftier expectations when they were 5-0 and still playing at home Oct. 13 after then-No. 1 LSU had already lost.
But Cal's dreams of an undefeated season and its first No. 1 ranking since 1951 were ruined with a loss to Oregon State. It was the first time in 11 years that the top two teams lost on the same day though it happened twice more after that this season.
Another loss the next week completely extinguished the Bears' national title hopes, and a third straight loss knocked them out of Pac-10 contention.
"It seems like that was so long ago," Tedford said about the 5-0 start. "There's been the share of misery that has been between then and now that I don't look back and say what if."
A week after Southern California started the trend, the Bears became the second straight No. 2-ranked team to lose and five more did after that. Oregon is the only other second-ranked loser that finished the regular season unranked.
Quarterback Nate Longshore didn't play against Oregon State because of a sprained right ankle. That bothered him the rest of the season, but he didn't miss another game and threw for 2,544 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Forsett, the Pac 10's second-leading rusher (117 yards per game) and top TD scorer (13), has also been hobbled by a sore ankle. Receiver DeSean Jackson missed the regular season finale with a bruised thigh.
At least the 30-day break between games gave the three playmakers some time to heal.
While this isn't how Forsett envisioned ending his collegiate career, he gets to play his final game about a half-hour from home with more than 300 family and friends there.
For Air Force seniors, their final game is against the same team the Falcons faced for their first game. California won the 2004 opener 56-14 with a 35-point outburst after halftime.
"This is definitely a chance to make up for it," said linebacker Drew Fowler, who got in only for the last few plays.
"It's a big motivation," Chad Hall said. "It would be nice, first game get blown out and last game beat them."
Unlike 2004 when Hall didn't play as a freshman, he won't be a bystander this time.
Hall is third in the nation in all-purpose yards (208.7 yards per game) and is the only player in the nation to lead his team in rushing and receiving yards.
Calhoun, an Academy graduate who spent last season as an NFL offensive coordinator in Houston, certainly isn't having to convince anybody now about the drastic offensive changes he made.
"I'm sure the first play, first drive, the first few games, everybody thought is this guy crazy?" Calhoun said. "We're no longer an option team, we're in the shotgun some, we're using no-huddle. We had to make a change."
Change turned out to be a good thing for the Falcons, who have a chance for a 10-win season.