By Michael Ventre
This Saturday, all eyes in the college football world focus on the West, which isn’t easy, because many of the ones in the East, South and Midwest suffer from pigskin myopia and therefore have to be fitted with corrective aids. But it’s true, no matter what Les Miles and the rest of the Pac-10’s peanut gallery think. The game between sixth-ranked California and 11th-ranked Oregon — both unbeaten — is the clash of all clashes, at least this Saturday. Last year, Cal burned its national title credentials with one nightmarish performance at Knoxville. The Bears then spent the rest of the season trying to atone. And they were only marginally successful, as losses in consecutive weeks to Arizona and USC illustrate. They did finish on a high note, walloping Texas A&M 45-10 in the Holiday Bowl. And thanks to USC’s flop against UCLA, the Bears came away with a share of the Pac-10 title. But all of that only built expectations high for 2007. Now that Cal has gotten revenge on both Tennessee and Arizona thus far, quarterback Nate Longshore, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, coach Jeff Tedford & Co. are standing proudly as a legitimate national power.
And in this corner … the Oregon Ducks, who had to rally to beat Stanford on Saturday 55-31, but who also have a giant victory at Ann Arbor on their ‘07 record. Like the Bears, the Ducks are also 4-0. But unlike the Bears, the Ducks didn’t recover and salvage their 2006 season with a string of rousing efforts. Oregon finished 2006 with four straight losses; in fact, beginning with a 45-24 defeat at Berkeley on Oct. 7 — its first setback after opening the season 4-0 — the Ducks proceeded to lose six of their final nine, including a complete no-show against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. This is a “prove it” game for both programs. Cal wants to be taken seriously among the big boys. The Bears certainly have the coaching and the athletes. But they also have a perception problem, which probably dates back to at least 2004 when they defeated, but failed to clobber, Southern Mississippi, 26-16, on the road in their final regular-season game. That allowed Mack Brown to work the room. He convinced enough poll voters to put his Texas team above Cal. The Longhorns thus went to the Rose Bowl. The disappointed Bears sulked their way to the Holiday Bowl, where they were embarrassed, 45-31, by Texas Tech. Like a brand of lettuce found to have E. coli in its bags, it takes a while before the public trusts your brand again. Cal is only now getting the love back. In 2005, Oregon reported a robbery also. The Ducks, despite finishing 10-1 in the regular season, were overlooked for a BCS berth, and Ohio State and Notre Dame got the nods instead.
Alas, it appears the Pac-10 will always battle for respect. But this week, a hard-fought confrontation between Cal and Oregon will go a long way toward raising the profiles of both the conference in general and those two programs in particular. In a year in which Louisville is upended by Syracuse, Michigan loses at home to Appalachian State, and Notre Dame is 0-4 for the first time ever, the Cal-Oregon matchup is practically college football’s version of the Super Bowl — at least on Saturday.