Sunday, September 02, 2007

San Jose Mercury: Big win for Cal, huge win for the Pac-10

By Jon Wilner

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007 at 1:44 am in Pac 10, USC, Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Washington, UCLA. The happiest man in Memorial Stadium on Saturday evening, for my money, was not Cal’s Jeff Tedford. It was Pacific-10 Conference commissioner Tom Hansen.  This was a big win for the Bears, don’t get me wrong. Beating Tennessee convincingly (45-31) opened up a slew of postseason doors for the Bears. It makes every game — not just league games — meaningful. And it gives the players a huge confidence injection.

But it was an even bigger win for Hansen and the Pac-10 because it will bolster the league’s reputation, silence its critics (for the time being) and substantiate the Pac-10’s marquee program, USC.  The cold, hard fact is that the rest of the country thinks of the Pac-10 as “USC and everyone else,” and not without reason: Take the Trojans out of the equation, and the conference was 3-0 against the SEC last season, the losses coming by a combined 85 points. That sentiment, and the collective Pac-10 angst, increased exponentially over the summer when LSU Coach Les Miles said that USC had an “easier road” to the BCS title game because the Pac-10 wasn’t nearly as strong/deep/talented/tough as the SEC.

Miles even suggested the BCS system should be tweaked because the Trojans had an unfair advantage playing in a second-tier (my interpretation of Miles’ comment) league.

He essentially called the conference out, and because of the head-to-head results last season, there wasn’t much the Pac-10 folks could say. So here we were at Memorial Stadium … a year after Cal got thumped in Knoxville and a few months after Miles took his shots, and with an airplane flying above Memorial Stadium dragging a banner that reads: “SEC Rules, Pac-10 Drools.” (This is according to CBS Sportsline; I didn’t see the plane.) The Pac-10 couldn’t have asked for a better situation: A rare home game against the SEC, on prime time, matching one of its best teams against one of the SEC’s biggest names.  Had Tennesse won, Hansen and the Pac-10 would have never lived it down, and Les Miles might never have shut up. And USC would have heard about its “easier road” from today until January 7. But the Bears took care of business in a big way, leaving no doubt that they were the better team - more skilled and, on this night, just as physical as the Vols. It was the Pac-10’s only shot at the SEC this season, and Cal hit a grand slam.

It doesn’t prove the Pac-10 is better than the SEC this season, or even that it’s just as good. But it gives the Pac-10 something to throw back at its critics, a big-time win that doesn’t involve USC but could, in time, help substantiate USC’s accomplishments. After the game, I asked Tedford about Miles’ comments, and if he had any response.

“No, no response.” Then, I continued, was there any feeling that you guys were playing this one for yourselves and also for the conference, to show the Pac-10 is comparable to the SEC? “This was more about us, about our guys playing for each other,” Tedford said. He had answered my questions, and I wasn’t trying to create something that wasn’t there. So I thanked Tedford and began to walk away. And that’s when he offered this: “We’ll see how LSU does against Tennessee.'’  Bingo!

It was one line, one seemingly innocuous line, but it was Tedford’s way of saying, “Here’s what we did to the Vols: 45-31.” Unfortunately, LSU doesn’t play Tennessee this season, so we won’t have comparative scores to examine (Cal-Tennessee vs. LSU-Tennessee). But Tedford’s point still stands: More than a few folks in the Pac-10 will be watching the Vols to see how they fare in the SEC, to compare the scores of Tennessee-Florida, for example, to Tennessee-Cal.  It’s tough to imagine many teams beating them worse than the Bears did — much to Tom Hansen’s delight.

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