By Luke Winn
It comes in with a whimper, this 2007 season, offering a single battle between ranked teams on opening weekend. Not on a pale blue afternoon in a venerable college football town, either, but rather under lights, in Berkeley, with a busted pinkie -- a pinkie! -- as the most intriguing game-week development. Why, though, should any of us complain? This is not a point in the year where the sport needs to sell itself. It's been eight months. We're starving. We'll take anything. And this -- Rocky Top meets Tightwad Hill -- ain't bad for our first Saturday night.
Three things you should care about
1. The result of this game -- a rematch of the Vols' 35-18 throttling of the Golden Bears -- will resonate well beyond Berkeley and Knoxville.
Bragging rights are of paramount importance in college football, especially in the SEC. And this is the SEC's lone regular-season shot at the Pac-10, a conference that has been the subject of some highly publicized derision in the south. (See: Miles, Les, and his views on "juggernauts.") Imagine a scenario on BCS Selection Sunday that forces voters to choose between a USC team with one loss (to Cal) and an LSU team with one loss (to Florida in October) for the remaining spot in the national title game (against say, undefeated West Virginia). If Cal has been throttled by Tennessee, and Florida is the SEC runner-up, advantage LSU. If Cal has beaten Tennessee, and Florida is just so-so, advantage USC.
Impressions left in Week 1 can linger for an entire season, and -- unfairly or not -- go a long way in defining the public perception of not just a team but an entire conference. Don't agree? Golden Bears coach Jeff Tedford, when recently asked by the L.A. Times what people remember most from the Bears' 10-3 run in '06, said, "it seems they always come back to Tennessee."
2. Are too many problems adding up for Tennessee?
Erik Ainge torched the Bears' inexperienced secondary for four TD passes in '06, but now all three of his best wideouts are gone ... and this week, X-Rays revealed that he has a busted pinkie on his throwing hand. Unless the release of the news is a ploy to throw off the Bears' preparations, it doesn't look good for the debut of the no-huddle offense installed this offseason by coordinator David Cutcliffe. The Vols' backfield issues don't end with Ainge, either; their leading rusher from '06, LaMarcus Coker, is suspended for the opener -- and their running game wasn't exactly inspiring last season anyway, ranking 96th in the nation. Cal's biggest complications, meanwhile, are the tree-dwelling protesters in the Oak Grove next to Memorial Stadium, who are attempting to block construction of a new, $125 million training center. The resilient hippies, who have been living in branches since December, are only digging in deeper after cops put a fence around their trees this week, in anticipation of confrontations with angry football fans.
3. Cal wideout DeSean Jackson has been hyped to no end this offseason, and he's talented enough to deserve it. But remember the names Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins. They're liable to do as much, if not more, damage than Jackson does on Saturday.
Jackson is perhaps the nation's top play-maker and a darkhorse Heisman contender, but the Vols -- unlike most of Cal's opponents -- are equipped to keep him at least partially in check. Senior safety/defensive back Jonathan Hefney is a potential All-American who had five interceptions in '06, and has the wheels to keep Jackson from having a monster Week 1. After Hefney, though, it gets ugly: Cal is not the team against which you want to be throwing three new defensive backs into the fire. Jordan and Hawkins each had 46 catches last season to complement Jackson's 59. The Bears' auxiliary wideouts, even if they're both 5-11, could easily be No. 1s on a team that didn't have DeSean. They'll be feasting on limited coverage against a Vols trio -- Antonio Gaines, Marsalous Johnson and Jarod Parrish -- making their first starts. Longshore, who essentially went into the fetal position in last year's loss (he threw for only 85 yards and zero TDs, and was picked once) has progressed as a passer to the point where he can exploit such an advantage.
Read the rest of the story here.