BERKELEY, Calif. - 'Weird' is the word mostly used to describe this area of the country. People live in trees, the hippie lifestyle has carried over to the new millennium, and it's easier to find a vegetarian deli than an Arby's. But 'weird' isn't reserved for the Berkeley lifestyle. It's also the best word to describe today's much-anticipated game between No. 15 Tennessee and No. 12 Cal at 7 p.m. The Vols smacked Cal 35-18 last season at Neyland Stadium, but this time around, the Bears are widely considered the favorite. Cal will be playing in the comfy confines of Memorial Stadium, the Bears feature one of the nation's best quarterbacks (Nate Longshore) and punt returners (receiver DeSean Jackson), and they have the all-important revenge factor on their side.
The Vols are well aware. And they have no problem with it. "I like being the underdog. It helps you out," said Jonathan Hefney, UT's All-SEC free safety. "You go in there and the coaches are going to tell you you're the underdog and it's going to hype you up. We're going to go out there and hit them in the mouth, I hope."
There are issues
The Vols do have a number of issues working against them. Starting quarterback Erik Ainge will play with a broken pinkie finger on his right (throwing) hand; All-SEC kicker Britton Colquitt will only handle punts; redshirt freshman Daniel Lincoln will handle field goals; senior tight end Brad Cottam will miss the game with a broken left hand; and UT's most electric tailback, former Antioch standout LaMarcus Coker, did not make the trip despite being allowed back on the team after being indefinitely suspended from the team last month.
On the positive side, UT has veteran running backs Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty in the backfield, Ainge appeared pain-free while throwing at practice on Thursday, and the defense is led by Hefney and a strong set of linebackers. They are led by two playmakers who are finally healthy, Jerod Mayo and former Battle Ground Academy star Ryan Karl.
UT will also trot out a handful of talented true freshmen, including defensive back Erik Berry and receiver/kick returner Denarius Moore.
"This is a huge game," said UT coach Phillip Fulmer, who is looking to go 15-1 in season openers. "They're the 12th-ranked team in the country, and it's a national television game. If you were playing, you know, West Virginia Tech or something like that, you'd certainly do some things to take a look at things. And I hope that we can along the way. But we want to win the game first." Cal coach Jeff Tedford doesn't disagree. It's the only game of the weekend featuring two teams ranked in the Top 25, and the national exposure will go a long way for both teams as the regular season wears on. "I think any time two top-20 teams play, it's a defining moment," Tedford said. "We anticipate a very, very good game and a very hard-fought game. If we're successful in this game, I think it will validate that we're a good football team because if you beat a team like Tennessee, that's not easy to do."
Search for redemption
Cal's redemption factor has been well documented during the offseason. Players said they used last year's loss to UT as motivation during spring and fall workouts. They said they worked harder in the weight room, and being continually asked about last year's debacle in Knoxville - a game which the Bears trailed 35-0 at one point - has given them more than enough motivation. UT knows teams looking for revenge can be dangerous. But the Vols know it could work to their advantage as well. "There is that certain revenge factor, but I try not to get too caught up in that," Karl said. "That can affect our game. There is a whole bunch of other stuff that goes into it instead of just being mad and going out there and trying to kill somebody. You have to be mentally prepared and do smart stuff."