BY HERB GOULD Staff Reporter
Don't tell California coach Jeff Tedford that the 12th-ranked Golden Bears' opener Saturday against No. 15 Tennesee is about revenge. ''This isn't revenge,'' Tedford said. ''It's about redemption. Revenge has nothing to do with it.'' Whether it's a chance for a payback, or a chance to diminish the pain of last year's trip to Knoxville, there's no question about one point: It's a golden opportunity for Cal to take the next step. Even though they've been awfully good in recent years, the Golden Bears have been living in the shadow of Pac-10 giant USC. And they have a lot of pieces in place for another strong run. Cal might even be good enough to set up a big-time showdown when the Trojans come to Berkeley on Nov. 10. But it has to take care of business against the Volunteers, who built a 35-0 lead in last year's opener against Cal before settling for a 35-18 thrashing.
It all starts here -- in the biggest game of college football's opening weekend. If the stakes are high for Cal, they also are big for the Vols. While the Golden Bears have only two other preseason-ranked teams on their schedule (No. 1 USC and No. 14 UCLA), Tennessee faces a mine field that includes No. 2 LSU, No. 6 Florida, No. 13 Georgia and No. 21 Arkansas. A slip Saturday would reduce the Vols' margin for error down the road. In another potential complication for Tennessee, senior quarterback Erik Ainge, who threw four touchdown passes vs. Cal last year, broke the pinky on his throwing hand in practice Monday. ''Just one of those things. I'll be all right,'' said Ainge, who injured the finger taking a snap. Just to be sure, the Vols decided to limit the practice exposure of their often-injured leader. Ainge shouldn't look for sympathy from Cal. Whether you call it redemption or revenge, the Golden Bears are determined to get this season off on the right foot by easing a painful memory.
''We've been thinking about that game since that day,'' safety Tomas DeCoud said. ''It's been burning in our souls. We've definitely devoted a lot of hard work and attention to getting ready for Tennessee and making sure we protect our house when they come to Berkeley.'' Beyond motivation, the Golden Bears have a lot of other things going for them this time around. They'll be playing in cozy, 67,000-seat Memorial Stadium, rather than that Rocky Top horror show, 106,000-seat Neyland Stadium. And junior quarterback Nate Longshore has a year of experience under his belt. Longshore has dropped 10 to 15 pounds, which should help him run Tedford's offense. The Cal coach has coached seven quarterbacks who have gone on to start an NFL game. Add a nice set of skill-position players -- including electrifying wide receiver/kick returner Desean Jackson -- and a promising defense, and Cal could be primed for a breakthrough season. Still, Tennessee figures to be a tough opponent. Although the Vols haven't won the SEC East outright since 1998, playing in the nation's toughest division will add losses that can subtract from a team's image. Blowing fourth-quarter leads last year against Florida and LSU cost them a chance for a spectacular season. It all adds up to an intriguing rematch, especially on an opening-weekend schedule that's short on major showdowns.
The line: California by 6.
Herb Gould's pick: Cal, 31-28