Jeff Tedford remembers the damage from last year's Tennessee game as only being a couple of days. Or four weeks. Or eight. Depending on what side of the desk you faced. Thus, he has a greater appreciation for what Sept. 1's game means for him and the California program, especially if the big idea for 2007 is to get off the Holiday Bowl carousel. "This isn't revenge, it's about redemption," he said. "I see the word 'revenge' thrown around a lot, and that has nothing to do with it." But even if the difference between "revenge" and "redemption" in this context seems like frantic splitting of very fine hairs, it also will help define how reachable Cal's grandest goals are this year. Namely, with all due respect to San Diego and Dec. 27, to play a game in January. And no, we're not talking the International or GMAC bowls, neither of which they could be invited to anyway. Nor are we speaking of the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl, which Cal could play in even while finishing second in the Pac-10, if the Holiday didn't want to keep hosting the same school again and again.
"I thought it took our guys a few weeks to get over it," Tedford said of last year's game in Knoxville, a rout in which the Golden Bears fell behind 35-0 before losing 35-18. "But I thought the rest of the country, I thought it lingered maybe eight weeks, before people could get past it and see what kind of team we had. "At the time, I sort of focused on how we finished (the game), but the commentators, they just talked about what a beating it was, and justifiably. But they hammered us pretty good, and I don't think people across the country looked at us again until we'd won those eight games in a row." By then, a BCS bowl other than the Rose was effectively out of the question. And then, when they lost at Arizona and USC, so was the conference championship. In other words, it was San Diego, again. Tedford didn't seem to get the full implications of last year's loss at Knoxville right off, because with all the effort put into making Cal a national player, he didn't see all the ways his team would be defined from outside, and how much that actually matters in college football. We know this because he said so. He knows it now, though. That's why he emphasizes "redemption," rather than "revenge," even though Cal opens as a 51/2-point favorite. This may be Cal's best chance in the Tedford Era to break the Holiday Bowl barrier, if preseason hype is any judge. Indeed this team is getting more national play than last year's, even though the two teams are comparable, all the way down to the Heisman Trophy candidatures of Marshawn Lynch last year and DeSean Jackson in this.
But Tedford claims to see a difference in this team, one that might serve it well come Sept. 1, and beyond. "I think this is a more mature group overall," he said. "People say that about their teams all the time, I know, but I don't remember having a freshman class this good and deep, or senior leaders who understand their responsibilities and what's at stake. The freshmen listen to the seniors, and the seniors don't lord it all over the freshmen. It's more ... cohesive." True, cohesion only matters after you've taken into account the more mundane attributes - size, speed, scheme, stuff like that. But Cal is playing for bigger stakes than being Miss Congeniality to USC's Best In Show, and even if SC is as good as advertised (which would be saying something given the advertising), there are still the other BCS possibilities, including the Rose if SC makes it to New Orleans on Jan. 7. "I have nothing against the Holiday Bowl," Tedford said, nearly pulling a groin muscle to avoid looking ungracious. "But we have goals we want to achieve here, and they are within reach." Within reach, that is, only with a good result against Tennessee, which looks by most broad strokes to be a lot like last year's Volunteers, which finished 9-4 and second to national champion Florida in the SEC East. Tedford knows the cost of last year's hammering, and how hard it was to get people to notice Cal after it happened.
And because college football is still in significant ways a high-collision beauty contest, falling off the runway on the first pass has doomed many teams before they ever reached the swimsuit competition. Thus, Tedford knows how much the Bears need to do in the next eight days, because their best-case scenarios ride on avenging ... oops, we meant redeeming themselves against the team that defined them nearly out of the national debate before Labor Day. This may be his best Cal team (even the Bears' most hysterical proponents still debate the virtues of the current glorious future with the dashed hopes of the 2004 juggernaut that ran fourth in the rankings until being overwhelmed by Texas Tech in, yes, you remember, the Holiday Bowl), but it won't get a chance to prove it without a bold stride on Day One. Hey, this is how all the big-boy schools have to live - on perpetual edge. It is exactly what Jeff Tedford has been working toward for six years now - to have one early game mean way too much. If this seems unfair, well, so is economics, politics, the justice system and Tim Donaghy's recent body of work. You learn to live with it, or you die for the lack of it.