QUIET, SUNNY day ushered in the start of classes at Cal on Wednesday. One laptop-toting student surfed the Internet in peace on the steps of Sproul Plaza. Cable companies and banks politely wooed freshmen along Bancroft. Students got reacquainted near the Campanile: "I can't believe I don't have your number," a sly guy said to a blonde coed. Up the hill at Memorial Stadium, however, something extraordinary was taking shape, something besides the overdue construction of a training center at Ye Ole Oak Grove: The Cal football team was practicing for what finally could be The Season.
This wasn't training camp anymore. This was "go" time, as it should be. So when star running back Jahvid Best got pushed to the turf by defensive end Cameron Jordan on a run up the middle, well, that was frightening. But that's getting game-ready. "It's part of the game. We're not going to gasp every time the guy gets hit," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said of Best. "He's a football player." A couple months from now — heck, try Oct. 3, when USC comes to town — Cal's campus will be knee-deep in football frenzy and squarely in the national spotlight. This season indeed is shaping up as something special. Granted, such optimism is a tradition before Game 1. But a lot already is falling into place for Tedford's lads. He got his semiregular quarterback controversy out of the way Monday when he proclaimed incumbent Kevin Riley as his starter. Better yet, Riley isn't simply starting in a wacky two-quarterback rotation like last year's, which backfired as he and Nate Longshore played inconsistently.
"I would like to stick with one guy," Tedford said. The one guy who actually has Cal back on the national map is Best. The junior seems quite capable of handling the hoopla of a Heisman Trophy campaign — and doing so in humble fashion, something wide receiver DeSean Jackson didn't quite pull off two years ago. "Jahvid's a team-first type of guy," cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson said. "He's not out here hyping himself up about the attention he's getting. We're proud of Jahvid. We want to win, and if he gets the big award at the end of the season, we're here to support him."
Who can forget that 2007 season with Jackson, a 5-0 start and a 7-6 finish? OK, Cal rooters probably have tried. They closed in on a No. 1 national ranking, but, boom, the Bears' season crumbled. "We had a lot of individual stuff going on that year," said Thompson, a fourth-year starter. "Everyone now has bought into the team context." Added Best: "We had big expectations last year, so we're kind of in the same boat. But the biggest thing we didn't have last year is confidence. That comes from experience."
And that's why the, ahem, Golden Bears should go for the gold. They are an experienced squad that has arguably the nation's top offensive weapon to complement a defense enjoying familiarity with a 3-4 scheme. Plus, Best could be ready to jump for the NFL, so the Bears should take full advantage of his play-making presence. Tedford likes how Best is more experienced, stronger and hopefully more durable. (Best admits he's not 100 percent, but a bruised foot isn't keeping him from top speed.)
Down the aqueduct, USC may not be the USC that the Pac-10 has come to fear. Cal fans should take great joy in the obstacles that stand between USC and an eighth consecutive Pac-10 title. The Trojans still are contemplating a successor to quarterback Mark "The Next Namath" Sanchez. Aaron Corp is recovering from a recently cracked fibula, and the next best thing is true freshman Matt Barkley. There's also a revamped defense, new coordinators and an intimidating second game, a Sept. 12 visit to Ohio State. By the way, wouldn't it be a nice time to finally have the Reggie Bush investigation come to fruition?
Cal is in control of its destiny, starting Sept. 5 vs. Maryland, followed by another home game against Eastern Washington. Trips to Minnesota and Oregon serve as great warm-ups for that Oct. 3 showdown vs. USC. Days like Wednesday reinforce Cal's belief that this could be The Season. "They had great focus all camp, and today was another really good day," Tedford said. "I think a lot of that is because of our experience. "... I was pleased." The ultimate pleasure could come in Pasadena, be it Jan. 1 in the elusive Rose Bowl or Jan. 7 in the national title game there. So goes the thought process when you binge drink from the half-full glass at the Bear's Lair Pub.