BERKELEY, Calif. -- SEC RULES, PAC-10 DROOLS.
You knew that didn't you? Les Miles reminded the world over the summer. The SEC, the LSU coach said, features "stiffer competition" than the Pac-10. No. 1 USC had "an easier road to travel" to the national championship game. The Trojans would face some real (sarcasm dripping) "knock down, drag outs" with the likes of Cal. Good luck getting a handle on Cal runningback Justin Forsett. (US Presswire) Then someone picked up the banner for Miles, literally, and flew it over Memorial Stadium a couple of hours before Cal met Tennessee on Saturday. Paid big bucks, it is assumed, for an airplane to drag that capital-lettered taunt across the sky. "It's pathetic they have to go and do that," Cal linebacker Zack Follett said following his team's 45-31 victory. "They wasted their money. If you're confident in the SEC, be confident in it. You don't have to be flying planes around. I thought that was stupid on their part." See what you did, Les? Now it's personal. A simple intersectional season opener between ranked teams turned into a culture war. And a whipping. The points were the most scored on Tennessee in 12 years, since Steve Spurrier dropped 62 on the Vols.
The Bears were much nicer about it than those old hated Gators. But the Vols -- and in a small way their conference -- were still humiliated. Don't write me, write the LSU coach and the guy who paid for the airplane. By the end, the sellout crowd had bought in to the theme. They were chanting, "Pac-10 foot-ball!" That might be the most emotion from this typically laidback crowd since Cal's triple-overtime win over USC in 2003. Which reminds us, the Trojans have won a couple of national championships since then, and Cal did win 10 games for the second time in three years last season. A good case can be made for the Pac-10 being second-best league in the land right now. Behind the SEC. Still. But on this sun-splashed day by the Bay, who cared? "I'm not responding to his comments," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said of Miles. "That was probably an emotional comment from him. Maybe he threw us in there because we did get beat by Tennessee." That's what this was really about. The plane wouldn't have taken off had not the Bears been emasculated in a 17-point loss in Knoxville last season. "They were bigger and stronger than we were," Cal safety Thomas DeCoud said before Saturday's game, "just because of the kind of football they play and how they recruit." Nothing changed much except the venue. Well, actually a lot changed. Tennessee doesn't have anyone to compare to DeSean Jackson, Jahvid Best and Justin Forsett. Tennessee still has back breakers, but Cal has a few too many ankle breakers. While the Vols can still bust heads, the Bears were busting long gains.
Jackson may never get another ball punted to him again. It took only the first half, but Phil Fulmer quickly decided Cal's All-American Heisman candidate was too good. After Jackson returned his sixth career punt for a touchdown (77 yards) in the second quarter, Britton Colquitt mysteriously got a case of the shanks. You see, when the ball sails out of bounds the best player on the field can't get it. They booed like Barry Bonds getting an intentional walk every time a ball sailed away from Jackson. When he did get his one chance, Jackson juked through a couple of Vols punt coverage guys like he was auditioning for Dancing with the Stars. If Jackson isn't good enough for you, surely Tennessee doesn't have anyone to match Best, a freshman with sprinter's speed. The tailback's 200 time in high school would have placed him third in last spring's NCAA national outdoor meet. Best touched the ball six times Saturday night and averaged 17 yards.
Forsett launched his 5-foot-8 body into the Vols 26 times and gained 156 yards. The senior has waited a long time behind Marshawn Lynch to get his chance to start. Now Cal might have two Heisman candidates. "I don't know if we could have simulated No. 4's (Best) quickness in practice quite like he showed, and No. 20's (Forsett) toughness," Fulmer said. "I think that surprised us a little bit." Tennessee had big players, tough players and courage (quarterback Erik Ainge played with a broken pinkie) but they are a shadow of their former selves. Heck, there was even a goal-line stand by Cal that suggested -- what's the word Fulmer used? -- toughness. Follett got things started by sticking his helmet in Ainge's back in the first quarter, causing a fumble that led to Worrell Williams' 45-yard fumble return for a score. "Before every game you envision one play," Follett said. "That was the play I sat there on my bed and envisioned. It all happened. It was in front of my eyes and I hit him as far as I could." The mistake, Les, was including Cal in your list of Pac-10 patsies. The Bears have become an annual top 15 team under Tedford. They recovered from the Tennessee disaster to win 10 games and share the Pac-10 title with the Trojans. It's one thing to lose, it's another to have to listen to how bad you are. "We've been carrying this with us," Tedford said, "for a year."