By Dennis Dodd
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There was a lot of time to think on Cal's flight back from Knoxville a year ago. Hours to contemplate a deflating, embarrassing, blown-back-to-the-stone-age loss to Tennessee in the season opener. The 35-18 gutting reinforced every stereotype about Pac-10 football: soft, too much finesse, pretty boys. Tennessee pushed Cal around from the opening kickoff. Cal pushed back only enough to make the final score cosmetic. "I remember that five-hour plane ride home," linebacker Zack Follett said. "That's going to stick with you." Cal gets the return game Saturday night with barely a visible scar. Total recall? Yes. But the shame factor is gone. "No, not at all," said quarterback Nate Longshore who asked about lingering effects from arguably the worst game of his career. "We're still getting asked about it. The sheer size of the stadium got to us. At the same time we had a great experience there. It was a pretty sweet stadium to play at. We learned a lot that game even though the outcome didn't go our way."
It seems another stereotype has emerged. These California kids really are laid back. Not sure, but there probably aren't too many SEC foes who have called Neyland Stadium "sweet." The Bears rebounded from the humiliation to win 10 games and grab a share of the Pac-10 title. In the past five seasons, the only school to so much as share the top spot with USC was Washington State in 2002. (USC did beat Cal head-to-head last season, but the Trojans' losses at Oregon State and UCLA allowed the Bears to tie at 6-2 in the league.) In terms of sexy, this season-opening weekend is somewhere between breakfast in bed with Joan Rivers and Joan Collins without makeup. Kind of blah. Tennessee-Cal is the only game featuring two ranked teams. Neither is in the top 10. Neither is projected to challenge for the national championship or even win its conference, but there are plenty of reasons to care.
• How will the teams react in this manhood game? Cal's was questioned last season in Knoxville. LSU's Les Miles made this more of a national game when he ripped the Pac-10 in the offseason. There's enough pressure on Tennessee already. A loss to a West Coast team it handled easily a year ago will not be taken well by Vol Nation.
• How will Erik Ainge's knee/finger hold up? The numbers suggest Tennessee's quarterback is about to become one of the school's best. Tennessee needs their quarterback locked and loaded. Torn knee cartilage was removed earlier this year. Monday, Ainge broke the pinky on his throwing hand (he'll still play). Throw in two injured tight ends and questions about the tailbacks and receivers and ... let's just say Mr. Ainge ought to get an armed escort into Memorial Stadium. Nothing else can go wrong.
• Can Cal really challenge USC this year? The Trojans come to Berkeley. A season-opening win over a ranked opponent would send a message. The Rose Bowl remains a nice consolation prize for the Bears if USC gets to New Orleans for the national championship game.
• Is this Jeff Tedford's best team at Cal? Receiver/returner DeSean Jackson is a Heisman candidate. Longshore is established and refined. The team is coming off a bowl romp over Texas A&M.
• Phil Fulmer turns 57 on Saturday. What better way to celebrate than blow out the Bears and the candles? Barbecue and sweet tea would be nice, but this is Berkeley. Might we suggest some sushi and green tea?