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THEY REPRESENT two distinctly separate groups, each following college football, each studying rosters and statistics and results, each with a different opinion of Cal. Those who vote in the polls view the Golden Bears as No.3 in the nation, right behind undisputed leaders USC and LSU, well ahead of several notable football factories in the South and Midwest. Those who evaluate personnel argue otherwise, concluding Cal, when placed under the microscope used to judge talent, can't roll with the "big boys." Why can't these folks agree? Because they don't see the same thing. The voters see a team averaging nearly 40 points in a BCS conference, with two high-profile wins, unbeaten through five games. The scouts? They see DeSean Jackson ... and not much else. Can we all agree this is enough to infer coach Jeff Tedford is doing a marvelous job? While neither voter nor scout, the results to me represent his most dynamic work yet at Cal.
Tedford was voted Pacific-10 Conference Coach of the Year in 2002 and again in 2004 — rightly so. He came to Berkeley in '02 and immediately turned around one of the nation's sorriest programs. The Bears in 2004 had the temerity to seriously challenge the Pac-10 supremacy of almighty USC. Both seasons ended with Tedford watching his quarterback leave for the wealth and status that come with being a first-round draft pick in the NFL. Kyle Boller ('02) and Aaron Rodgers ('04) each took several teammates with them, notably Nnamdi Asomugha, Tully Banta-Cain, J.J. Arrington, Lorenzo Alexander and Matt Giordano. Having so many former players promoted to the world's highest league implies Tedford and his staff had the raw goods to compete among the elite.
This season, with the Bears now sitting on their highest ranking in 55 years, has been a classic case of Tedford and his staff nursing and prodding and scheming them to heights beyond that which its roster would indicate. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of mock 2008 NFL drafts, posted on various Web sites, and Jackson, the junior wideout and punt returner, is the only Golden Bear who consistently rates as a first-round pick — assuming he declares early. Even then, scouts are concerned about his relatively slight (6 feet, 175 pounds) frame. The rest of the team? Who dey? Senior tailback Justin Forsett and junior center Alex Mack are projected as possible first-day picks, as is senior safety Thomas DeCoud. After that, it's as dry as the chalk dust on Tedford's fingers. USC, by contrast, could have a first-day pick at every position, on either side of the ball. Whereas five or six Trojans could go in the first round, it's unlikely that six Bears will be drafted over all seven. But the lack of respect for Cal's talent has not affected its play. The Bears have scored at least 31 points in every game and rank in the top five nationally in turnover margin — one of only two categories in which they lead the Pac-10. Even though only Washington State among conference teams has given up more first downs and the Bears are allowing nearly 300 yards passing per game against BCS conference teams, they will fall no lower than third — if they keep winning.
"The expectation for our players is to be where we are ... and keep working to play as hard as we can," Tedford says. "I don't feel surprised about what we're doing or where we are, because that is our expectation every week." Famously myopic, Tedford truly believes this. His armor of modesty fits nicely. But he is the difference. Of all the Bears with a fine first half of the season, Tedford is atop the list. Cal thus far is blowing away preseason rankings, which generally placed them between 10th and 20th. So there was Tedford, sitting on a raised platform casually dismissing the significance of the polls. Being ranked third, he says, does nothing for his Bears. Insofar as it's early October, with Pac-10 teams just making acquaintance, Tedford spoke the kind of truth that mashes the possibility of reasonable dispute. Then he contradicted himself. Sort of. He said the polls are important — for Cal's future. And that's why this September is Tedford's best yet. Cal's record is perfect, the ranking notable. More to the point, the Bears enter October knowing they'll have two full weeks to make a third group — ultimately more significant than the other two — take notice.
This group is called recruits, and even Tedford concedes an impression is being made. "There's no question about that," he says. "When you have the national attention of being highly ranked, the recruits know that. So I'm not going to be naive and say it doesn't help." Oh, it helps big time. It gives Tedford and his staff something terrific to sell, even as social activists sit in trees outside Memorial Stadium. Even as those whose duty is to watch quibble over what they see.