Nearly an entire month had passed since Cal's season-opening, 35-18 debacle against Tennessee last year. The Bears had just finished routing Oregon State 41-13 on a crisp, late September day in Corvallis. They had won their fourth straight game by a combined score of 174-67. As Cal players and coaches arrived at the steps leading down to their locker room, one man in a group of apparent fans kept clapping. But it quickly became clear that this was no Cal fan and no OSU fan showing respect. "Great job against Tennessee," he said sarcastically and repeatedly as waves of Cal players and coaches passed. Welcome to Cal's world last season after their Rocky Top Horror Show.
No matter how well the Bears played or how many games they won, their performance was always viewed by many through Tennessee orange-colored glasses. Week after week, questions about that loss to Tennessee kept coming the Bears' way, even causing Cal coach Jeff Tedford, typically so calm and cool, to turn a bit testy at times. "It's definitely been a thorn in our sides," Cal safety Thomas DeCoud said last week in a conference call. "We've been thinking about that game since that day. "It's been burning in our souls. We've definitely devoted a lot of hard work and attention to getting ready for Tennessee and making sure we protect our house when they come to Berkeley."
Earlier this summer, Tedford said the Bears were looking for redemption, not revenge, when they open the 2007 season Saturday at Memorial Stadium with a rematch against Tennessee. Revenge? Redemption? It's all a matter of semantics. Either way, it equals a huge dose of motivation for the Bears. "It was a lot of hurt," Cal running back Justin Forsett said of the loss. "It just left a bitter taste in my mouth. It's driving me. ..." If they want to stop all the Tennessee talk -- at least the negative talk -- they have to win Saturday's game. And if the Bears thought it was bad for them last year after losing to the Volunteers, they don't even want to imagine the fallout from back-to-back losses, with loss No. 2 coming at home. Talk about a gigantic risk/reward opener for the Bears. Win, and they'll solidify themselves as legitimate BCS contenders with a chance to take Tedford's program to new heights. Lose, and they'll be considered a BCS pretender and face another season of unending questions about what went wrong against Tennessee.
Last year you could almost understand why the Bears fell apart against Tennessee. They were on the road, playing in front of 106,009 orange-clad Volunteers fans at Neyland Stadium. They had never experienced that type of road environment or faced an SEC power. What's more, Cal quarterback Nate Longshore was making just his second start at Cal after missing almost an entire season with a broken leg. And cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson was making his first start. This year, the Bears have no excuses. They're at home. They know what to expect from Tennessee. Longshore has a full season of experience. So does Thompson. "With the experience we have and the hunger to go out and get a little bit of revenge, I think it will be a good matchup," Cal linebacker Zack Follett said. Follett must not have received the memo about this being a matter of redemption, not revenge. Oh well. According to Follett, the Bears were surprised by just how "big, strong and fast" the Volunteers were. Tennessee, indeed, clearly outmuscled Cal. "In the South, they're bred that big," Follett said. "In California, I wouldn't say we're not as big, we're just a different type of athlete out here. "I think one of our goals has been to match up to the kind of football they play. The Pac-10 is a little more finesse. The SEC is a little more power. ... They're definitely a physical team. That's why we've been in the weight room all summer working."
If the Bears are looking for even more motivation, a coach from another SEC power, LSU's Les Miles, gift-wrapped some. Miles was talking to a group of LSU fans earlier this summer when the subject of a potential BCS title game between USC and LSU came up. "I would like nothing better than to play USC for the title," Miles said. "I can tell you this: They have a much easier road to travel. They're going to play real knockdown, drag-outs with UCLA and Washington, Cal-Berkeley, Stanford -- some real juggernauts there."
Talk about an SEC slap in the Pac-10's face. Granted, Stanford and Washington are struggling. But Cal is ranked No. 12 in the nation and UCLA, which beat USC last year, is No. 14. Tedford publicly downplayed the Pac-10 vs. SEC angle. Privately, he might have a different message for his team. You can bet Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer is using that SEC pride angle to his advantage, just as he did last year. "This game wasn't just for Tennessee," Volunteers quarterback Erik Ainge told the Knoxville News-Sentinel after last year's victory over Cal. "It was the South vs. the West Coast and the SEC vs. the Pac-10. We took that to heart." So should the Bears. It couldn't hurt.