Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Seattle Post Intelligencer: Opening stakes high at Berkeley


If California beats Tennessee on Saturday, will that halt all the endless regional bloviating? Will LSU coach Les Miles again call Cal a "juggernaut," only this time without sarcasm? Will the tectonic plates of college football thought shift violently westward? Er, no.  It's important for folks down South to believe they own college football, and they'd never let scoreboard reality get in the way of their cultural imperative. If the Golden Bears take vengeance -- sorry, Coach Tedford, "redemption" -- for last season's 35-18 humiliation, SEC adherents will merely spew forth an endless array of excuses, just like they've done when previous encounters with the Pac-10 didn't go according to plan.  The national media? Forget that. Our fine friends over at ESPN, Sports Illustrated, et al, know that every time they massage SEC pride, their Q-ratings go up and their e-mail in-box is spared an organized assault.

If Cal, again ranked higher than Tennessee, again listed as the favorite, manages to beat the Volunteers, it will establish the Bears as a legitimate potential foil for USC in the Pac-10. That automatically means national title contention.  A Cal victory? Folks on the West Coast would gloat for about a week before they got on with their rich and varied lives. Vols fans would claw their eyes out and demand coach Phil Fulmer's meaty noggin' on a platter, preferably fried. If the Vols again bully Team Oski, only this time in its own cave, well, that likely won't be quickly forgotten, particularly if Cal ends up in the top third of the Pac-10. After all, Cal won 10 games last year and kicked around Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl, but that didn't restore its national perception. "It comes up constantly, no matter where you are," Bears coach Jeff Tedford said. "When they talk about the season last year -- you won 10 games, they talk about the bowl game a little bit -- but it seems like they always come back to Tennessee." Why might this year's result be different? Well, that requires a quick look at what went wrong a year ago.

First, Cal lost starting cornerback Tim Mixon to a knee injury two weeks before the cross-country trek. That made redshirt freshman Syd'Quan Thompson the starter. Thompson had a large cast on a busted up hand, which made it tough to tackle future first-round draft pick Robert Meachem, who turned a pair of short hitch routes into long touchdowns.

Second, All-Pac-10 tight end Craig Stevens, a physical blocker who had a prominent place in the game plan, was knocked out of the game with a concussion on the opening kickoff. Finally, the Bears were obviously overwhelmed by the environment, the heat and humidity and, oh, yeah, the 103,000 orange-clad fanatics on hand. "It was the biggest crowd I'd ever seen," said linebacker Anthony Felder, an O'Dea graduate. "I'm sure it affected some guys, maybe rattled some cages." This time around, the game will be in pleasant Strawberry Canyon. The Vols will be without suspended starting running back LaMarcus Coker, their receivers are questionable and just five starters are back on defense. If the Bears get whupped again, excuses will be hard to come by.

"What happened last year will be in the back of everyone's mind," Felder said, "but it's not personal. It's about redeeming ourselves in the national spotlight." Maybe it should be personal. That's how it is down South. Tedford won't take the revenge bait publicly, but be sure that he will challenge his team's pride. Everyone knows that this isn't just another non-conference game. Not after all the offseason flapping of chops.


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