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The Cal Bears as the second-ranked college football team in the nation is not simply an incongruous Berkeley story of athletic prowess mingling oddly with tree-sitting hippies. The Bears at No. 2 validates Pacific-10 Conference football. They poke a hole in East Coast ignorance. They inspire unearthly dreams of a Northern California entry in a national championship equation for the first time since football players wore leather helmets. Yes, there is a lot of football still to be played. The Bears have a schedule full of conference games in which their newly vaunted status could be stolen. That's the point here. The impossible dream of a Bowl Championship Series title game would be rightly earned if the Bears prevail over what lies ahead. They still have to travel to Tempe, Ariz., to play undefeated Arizona State, the team that dominated Colorado, which was the team that upset Oklahoma -- a top-10 program. They still have to go to Seattle to play a young and dangerous Washington squad revived from the depths. The Huskies halted Boise State's 14-game winning streak, are the only team to give No. 3 Ohio State a game this season and softened up USC for Stanford's huge upset Saturday. What a moment that was when the once-hapless Cardinal beat the Trojans in Los Angeles, shoving the Bears upward in the rankings and shaking up the landscape like Loma Prieta II.
When it ended, when a college football season of upsets registered its biggest yet, LSU trailed Florida by 10 points. The possibility of Cal at No. 1 was right there until the Tigers rallied to hold the top spot for themselves. Could you imagine Cal at No. 1? I know, Cal doesn't have a national championship defense. The Bears got shoved around by Louisiana Tech and gave up big yards to Arizona. So what? The Bears aren't going to produce a passel of defensive blue-chippers for next year's NFL draft. But they went into Eugene, Ore., and did just enough to slow an offense that ripped Michigan in Ann Arbor. I don't know if Cal could beat LSU if they played this Saturday. But I would bet money LSU would have its hands full on any wet Saturday in Oregon. The Tigers would feel it if, in one season, they had to go to Tempe and Seattle and Los Angeles to face USC or UCLA, never mind the Bruins' loss to hapless Notre Dame on Saturday. There are no gimmes out here in the land New York forgot. If you think there are, try going into Corvallis without your game on. Or do what USC did Saturday when the Trojans looked past a Stanford team with gifted athletes and a coach who, unlike his predecessor, seems smart enough to actually attend classes at Stanford.
When it's over, Cal's opening-weekend wallop of Tennessee -- and its sainted Southeastern Conference pedigree -- will go down as one of the Bears' easier wins. Oregon was a much tougher test, and the aforementioned conference games will be tougher as well. Cal easily could lose before facing USC in Berkeley on Nov. 10 -- especially if quarterback Nate Longshore does not recover from an ankle injury sustained in Eugene. Or Pete Carroll's Trojans could wake up to find they have the most talent in the country and destroy everyone from now until that BCS title game in New Orleans in January. Maybe a Cal appearance at the Superdome next year really is a pipe dream. Or maybe Stanford's upset of USC and Cal's presence as No. 2 proves what the East Coast bias refuses to acknowledge: That the toughest road to BCS glory winds through the West.