Friday, August 31, 2007

San Jose Mercury News: Cal, SJSU and Stanford football: A HUGE weekend for the locals

By Jon Wilner

If you’re a fan of the local college football teams, Saturday is the day you’ve been waiting for. Not for a few weeks, or a few months. Forever.  It’s the best opening day in Bay Area history, with all three teams playing important games against big-name opponents.  No. 12 Cal faces No. 15 Tennessee in prime time in the marquee game of the week nationally, the only one matching ranked teams. Stanford plays a conference game against a ranked team, No. 14 UCLA, in new Coach Jim Harbaugh’s debut.  And San Jose State takes its show on the road to face a Pacific-10 Conference foe. No, Arizona State isn’t ranked, but the Sun Devils are a bowl contender with a coach you might have heard of, Dennis Erickson. The Spartans couldn’t ask for a much bigger stage. To find anything like Sept. 1, 2007, you’d have to go back to Sept. 9, 1978. That day, Cal opened against Nebraska, Bill Walsh led Stanford against Oklahoma and SJSU faced Idaho. But that Cal team wasn’t ranked, and SJSU-Idaho can’t compare to SJSU-Arizona State.

And here’s more good news for local fans: By about 10:30 p.m., when the SJSU game winds down, we should know what the next three months will bring. What happens Saturday will go a long way to shaping each team’s season. We’ll know if Cal is a Bowl Championship Series contender or a second-tier team, if Stanford is grasping for mediocrity or downright awful, and if SJSU is headed for another nine-win season or will finish closer to .500. The Spartans’ schedule is much tougher this year than last. How they fare at ASU should be a pretty good indication of how they’ll fare at Kansas State, at Fresno State, at Boise State and against Hawaii.  “If you play your first game against a weak opponent, you don’t know much at all,'’ Spartans Coach Dick Tomey said. “But with a team like ASU, we’ll know a lot about us.'’

Tomey wants to play as many Pac-10 teams as possible, even as openers, and has scheduled a trip to USC in 2009. The games provide terrific recruiting exposure for his emerging program and are essentially no-lose opportunities, since no one expects the Spartans to beat an ASU or USC.  But up in Berkeley, Cal Coach Jeff Tedford isn’t nearly as eager to face Tennessee in the first game. Sure, it will tell the Bears exactly where they stand — whether the rebuilt defense is ready for prime time, whether Justin Forsett can carry the running game — but the risks are high.  Win the game, Tedford’s thinking goes, and the Bears would still have to win the next one (and the next one and the next one) to achieve their goals of a BCS bowl. But a loss could waylay Cal’s grand plans and damage confidence for weeks to come.  There’s a reason no other top programs are opening against ranked opponents.  “If you don’t win, then that stays with you for a long time, at least it did last year,” Tedford said. “I’m just going off of last year’s experience, so that’s why I say that.”

It took weeks for the Bears to recover emotionally from their 35-18 loss in Knoxville and even longer for the criticism to abate.  No matter what Cal did, no matter how many games it won, its season was shaped by the performance in Knoxville.  “We won 10 games last year and I think the question that gets asked the most is Tennessee and maybe you might get a little bit, oh, by the way, good job in the bowl game,'’ Tedford said. “That what comes out of last year, but that’s the worst we’ve ever played.'’ Stanford also opened the 2006 season with an embarrassing loss - the difference being that the 48-10 defeat at Oregon wasn’t an abberation but a harbinger.  That could the be the case again this season. If Stanford gets bombed, then we’re probably looking at another atrocious season. (The schedule is one of the toughest in the nation.)

But if the Cardinal wins - or if it’s competitive for most of the game - then we can expect mediocrity, or something approaching it, in Harbaugh’s rookie season. “There’s no kind of evaluation you can get quite like a ball game,'’ he said. Especially a big game on the first Saturday in September. Opening days like this one don’t come around often.

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