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NO. 3 BEARS CAN CHART THEIR OWN BCS DESTINY
Never, in the history of college football, has there been a team like the Cal Bears. That's not just breathless newbie football excitement talking. I mean it: There has never been a team like Cal. Never before has the No. 3 team in the country had people living in the trees outside its football stadium. "Probably not," laughed Coach Jeff Tedford on Tuesday.
The Bears are on a roll. Saturday, they won their fifth consecutive game and saw other top teams collapse. Sunday, they earned their highest ranking since 1952. And Monday, a judge issued an injunction that might allow the university to evict the tree sitters. Those are the colorful folks who have spent 10 months living in the oaks outside Memorial Stadium, protesting the proposed removal of the trees to make way for an "athletic performance center" as part of a new stadium plan. No other football powerhouse in the country can make such a claim.
But that's the deal at Cal. The new facility is crucial to keeping Tedford happy, which is crucial to keeping Cal a national powerhouse. But the new facility will be in Berkeley - and there's the catch. That's part of trying to transform this town into a West Coast version of Gainesville, Fla. Tedford knows that now. "But I didn't know it then," he said, referring to his arrival in Berkeley in 2001. (An aside on the trees: It's not an ancient grove. The trees were planted in the early 1920s as landscaping for the new stadium. But their presence is part of the reason Memorial Stadium is one of the most beautiful venues in the country and Cal is one of the best game-day experiences, whether the Bears have been good, lousy or - now - potentially great. The trees were there when my father lived next door at the I-house in the early 1930s and they could be there long after Tedford is earning riches in the NFL. Can't we find a compromise?) Tedford doesn't pay attention to the tree people, who are considered a health hazard because trees don't have (a) indoor plumbing or (b) stoves. Sanitation and propane use are big concerns. Tedford doesn't drop by on his way to work to beg the tree people to end their protest nor to update them on his team's progress. "I don't mind it," Tedford said. "Everybody's got to have something to believe in."
For the non-Oak lover at Cal, Tedford is what they believe in and Cal football is their church. The Bears are set up beautifully right now. By beating a highly ranked team on the road on the same day that the third-, fourth- and seventh-ranked teams lost, Cal was able to leap to No. 3, though it's debatable whether Cal really is the third-best team in the country. "Until December or January gets here, that stuff means nothing," Tedford said. "There's no difference between 10th or sixth or third. It doesn't mean anything." Well, it does mean something. It means more attention to everything (including Camp Oak Tree). It means a lot to impressionable high school kids - as Tedford will see this weekend when he hits the local recruiting trail. It's important to DeSean Jackson, whose Heisman campaign will be taken far more seriously. And, since Cal controls its destiny, it means that any future loss will be huge. The Bowl Championship Series rankings start in two weeks. To qualify for a BCS game, a team must win its conference or have nine victories and a top-14 ranking. Cal, 5-0 with seven games remaining, could easily meet the criteria. Cal could win the Pacific-10, though the betting money is on USC, which will also be 5-0 after this weekend's beat-down of Stanford. But Cal has three trap games on its schedule: at UCLA on Oct. 20; at Arizona State on Oct. 27; and at Washington on Nov. 17.
Though Cal appears to be superior to all three opponents, each game is dangerous. All three are on the road. The first two precede the USC showdown. Tedford doesn't believe teams look ahead, but his players confessed to doing it last season, losing to lowly Arizona the week before traveling to USC. The Washington game is a trap because it comes the week after USC. Win or lose, the Bears will need to refocus. The Washington game was moved from this week, giving Cal a welcome off week in midseason. But it makes for a potentially tough game at what could be a must-win time for the Bears. But for now Cal is happy to be part of the national championship equation, the only powerhouse ever to wonder about both the mystery of national rankings and how tree dwellers conduct their personal hygiene.