When the 2009 season began, we "experts" generally placed four teams -- Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and USC -- in a class by themselves. This demarcation didn't require much imagination on our parts, as all four played in BCS bowls last year. But as with any season, new contenders have inevitably emerged from places we'd least expect. Like the Emerald Bowl. Last December, 8-4 Cal beat 7-5 Miami, 24-17, in what seemed at the time an inconsequential bowl game. At the time, the only things that stood out were Bears running back Jahvid Best's 186-yard performance and Miami's horrific clock-management at the end. In hindsight, perhaps we should have viewed it as a launching pad for Best's Heisman campaign and the unveiling of the Hurricanes' next great quarterback.
Over the next two weeks, the Bears and 'Canes could place themselves squarely at the front of their respective conferences. Cal, 3-0 and ranked sixth in the latest AP poll following Saturday's 35-21 win at Minnesota, begins Pac-10 play this weekend with a trip to Oregon, then heads back home to play suddenly vulnerable USC. Win both, and Cal -- which hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since 1959 -- will be sitting in first place, having conquered what may be its two toughest league games. Miami (2-0), which has jumped from unranked in the preseason to No. 9 following wins over ranked foes Florida State and Georgia Tech, visits No. 11 Virginia Tech this weekend with a chance to jump to a 3-0 start in ACC play. Should the 'Canes prevail, they would then meet No. 10 Oklahoma with a chance to thrust themselves into the heart of the national-title race. "A lot of people expected us to go 0-4," Miami safety Randy Phillips said of his team's brutal first month. "I don't know what they were thinking."
They were thinking that the once-dominant 'Canes had gone 19-19 the past three seasons and, though likely improved thanks to third-year coach Randy Shannon's recent recruiting prowess, were still young (their two-deep includes 19 freshmen or sophomores) and unproven. A 2-2 start would have been deemed an achievement. But Miami came out looking completely revamped from a year ago. Led by precocious sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris -- who made his first meaningful start in the Emerald Bowl -- the 'Canes' offense has been one of the biggest surprises of this young season.
Harris, who showed flashes of things to come with a 25-of-41, two-touchdown performance that night in San Francisco, currently ranks as the nation's third-leading passer. Miami's O-line and running game are much improved, and new coordinator Mark Whipple, the former national-champion UMass head coach, has Miami stretching the field more so than in recent years (Harris is averaging 11.1 yards per attempt) thanks in part to a suddenly deep stable of athletic receivers (Travis Benjamin, LaRon Byrd, Leonard Hankerson and tight end Dedrick Epps). "Miami didn't just arrive right now," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said Sunday. "They were a good team when we played them in that bowl game, [with] a lot of speed and athleticism. Their quarterback was an exciting player at that time as well."
Tedford's team can't be considered as big of a surprise. If anything, Cal has started out exactly as predicted. But the Bears have often wilted under hype -- see 2007, when they started 5-0 and rose to No. 2 before losing six of seven -- which is why Saturday's road win was important. Faced with adversity when the Gophers rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to tie the game at 21-21 late in the third quarter, quarterback Kevin Riley regained momentum with two long throws on a go-ahead drive midway through the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Best scored five touchdowns and the defense held Minnesota to 270 total yards.
"I feel good about this team," Tedford said. "A lot of guys on this team were here two years ago when we got to No. 2 and the wheels came off. We have more maturity and different team chemistry now."
Obviously, the Bears' Pac-10 title hopes got a whole lot rosier Saturday based less on their win than seven-time defending league champion USC's 16-13 loss at Washington. It would be foolish to write off the Trojans, which played the Huskies without injured quarterback Matt Barkley and star safety Taylor Mays, but even coach Pete Carroll admitted, "We're not real good right now. We weren't real good last week [against Ohio State], either." This is the chance Cal has been waiting for since 2003, the year Tedford's program stormed onto the scene with a 34-31 victory over the Trojans. The Bears have been chasing USC ever since, losing five straight meetings, but they best not look past Oregon, which just ended Utah's 16-game winning streak.
"We've learned our lesson that in this conference, you have to be ready every single week," Tedford said. "The environment we went to play in at Minnesota was very similar to Oregon's stadium. It was what we needed for sure, to play a tough physical game in a hostile environment."
Miami faces its own treacherous trip this weekend at two-time defending ACC champ Virginia Tech. The Hokies pulled off an improbable win Saturday over Nebraska, overcoming another bout of offensive ineptitude by holding the Huskers without a touchdown in a dramatic, last-second 16-15 victory. The Hokies' defense will come after Harris, who threw two interceptions against Florida State but was nearly flawless against Georgia Tech (20-of-25, 270 yards, three TDs, no INTs). If anything, however, Miami gained even more validation on its off-day Saturday when the Seminoles went and trounced No. 7 BYU. The 'Canes may be more "back" than we realized at the time. "We're ready for anyone," Phillips said. "We embraced the schedule, and we're still embracing it." Win again this week, and the nation will have to start embracing the 'Canes, too.