By GREG BEACHAM
Syd'Quan Thompson knows cornerbacks must have short memories. He still has no plans to forget what happened in California's awful trip to Tennessee last year — at least until he replaces it with something sweet. Thompson was three months out of high school when injuries thrust him into Cal's starting lineup in Knoxville for the Golden Bears' highest-profile nonconference game in several years. The fans, the heat, that incessant "Rocky Top" song — everything contributed to a handful of mistakes that left Thompson looking like the goat in the Volunteers' 35-18 victory. Yet when Thompson takes the field for a season-opening rematch back home in Berkeley on Saturday night, he hopes to repay a debt of gratitude to the Vols. He shares his teammates' resolve to show Tennessee just how much they learned that day about expectations, attention and resilience. "I kind of needed that game," said Thompson, now the Bears' most experienced cornerback and a rising Pac-10 star. "That game really woke me up and let me know what I had to do. I don't want to make this next game too personal ... but I thought about that game dang near every day this summer." No. 15 Tennessee's visit to 12th-ranked Cal is the opening weekend's only matchup between ranked teams. It's also an unusual clash of conferences, styles and geographic regions — and just the type of challenge that most of the Golden Bears love about their sport.
Yet most of the game's national attention focuses on the debate about the legitimacy of West Coast football outside of Southern California. LSU coach Les Miles' disparaging remarks about the Trojans' opponents voiced an oft-unspoken, but widely held perception about Cal and the Pac-10. "In their mind, they think California football is soft," linebacker Zack Follett said. "I don't take kindly to that, being from California. The SEC is a physical conference, but the Pac-10 has never really got the respect it deserves just because we pass a lot. I think we've just got to prove to them that our style can beat anybody." The Bears looked as bad as most SEC fans hoped in last year's loss, and even their blowout win over Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl didn't erase that image. With homefield advantage in Strawberry Canyon and 50,000 megaphones in their fans' hands, the Bears believe they can run with anybody in the nation — and they're not the only ones aching for validation. "It's on and off campus, everywhere you go," linebacker Anthony Felder said. "If somebody finds out you're a Cal football player, their first question is, 'Are you ready to beat Tennessee?' It seems like they're even more passionate about it than the Big Game."
When the Volunteers rolled into the Oakland hills on Thursday evening, their four-bus convoy stopped traffic on a hillside freeway. Thousands of their traveling fans could have transportation problems if they're staying in San Francisco, since the Bay Bridge will be closed throughout Labor Day weekend for repairs. And when the fans finally get to the game, they'll see a charmingly rundown stadium, temporary floodlights and another Berkeley phenomenon: Activists have been sitting in a small stand of oak trees on the hillside below the stadium since last year in protest of Cal's plans to build a new training complex on the site. Sure, there's a bit of a culture clash. But the teams could be quite evenly matched on the field. Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer doesn't share his fans' dismissal of the Bears' abilities. Cal's offense lost tailback Marshawn Lynch, but otherwise seems deeper and more experienced than last year's unit behind quarterback Nate Longshore, who was pulled from his second collegiate start at Tennessee last year. "As you look at the tape and the improvement that they made during the course of the year, they're an outstanding football team," said Fulmer, who's taking his team to the West Coast for the first time since visiting UCLA in 1997. "The quarterback will be as good as we will play during the course of the year. He can make all the throws." And Longshore might even have a target who could end up feeling the same way Thompson felt after last season's matchup. Marsalous Johnson, a sophomore cornerback who was suspended for last season's game, is expected to make his first Tennessee start against speedy receiver DeSean Jackson, Cal's top playmaker.
While Fulmer has tried to keep his team even-keeled for the tough SEC season ahead, Cal coach Jeff Tedford can't deny his players' eagerness for another shot at the Vols. Tedford repeatedly has described the game as a chance for "redemption, not revenge." "If we're successful in this game, it would just validate that we're a good football team," Tedford said. "We're not out to make a statement for the Pac-10. We're out to play the best we can play, and if that makes a statement, then that's our statement."