But getting past the Volunteers would be only the first step
Only 10 days until Cal football's season-opening win over Tennessee. And then ... The Bears' home crowd -- including the most season-ticket holders in program history at 40,262-plus -- goes wild. And then ... A national-television audience -- a sleepy one, at that, thanks to the 5 p.m. PDT kickoff -- reclassifies Cal as a bona fide national contender. And then ... We all wonder (again) if this really is Cal's year. It sure could be.
The foundation has been set. The Bears' shock value isn't so shocking anymore. So it is today that Cal -- ranked 12th in the Associated Press' preseason poll, a ranking that would have rattled the Hayward Fault a few years ago -- dives helmet-first into its homework for 15th-ranked Tennessee. The winning game plan gets installed today and practiced tomorrow (and thereafter) until it's executed on Sept. 1. This is no back-to-school prank. This is Cal beating Tennessee, the win that paves the way to a daring, season-long run at Pac-10 nemesis USC. This isn't meant just to avenge last year's season-opening waltz Tennessee had at the Bears' expense in Knoxville, a 35-18 Vols' victory. This will be the first in a 13-step coronation to more national notoriety for the Bears. Sure, they've tasted recognition in recent years -- they finished No. 9 in the 2004 AP poll, No. 25 in 2005 and No. 14 last year -- but they're ready for another bump up the food chain.
They must take that Sept. 1 victory and build off it. Remember that 2002 win at 15th-ranked Michigan State, the one that put Cal at 3-0 in Jeff Tedford's first year? Cal lost the following week. Remember that 2003 triple-overtime triumph over USC? Cal lost the following week. A win over Tennessee won't make a season. It'll begin one. Yes, the immediate focus is now on Tennessee, but it wasn't the past few weeks at training camp. "We're not into the whole Tennessee thing. This was more about us and how we prepare," Tedford said Monday. "We feel good where we are. We're fairly healthy. We've got a lot of good work in and now it's a matter of making sure we're ready for different situations." This is Tedford's sixth season, so he's ready. And he's got a ready-made superstar tandem in wide receiver DeSean Jackson and quarterback Nate Longshore, who also can target senior wide receivers Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins. Sure, Marshawn Lynch and J.J. Arrington are off and running in the NFL, but Tedford still has a sweet stable of running backs, led by senior Justin Forsett. Tailbacks Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen are part of an eye-opening freshman class -- Tedford's best at Cal -- and if those guys pan out, they could provide the have-no-fear, we-don't-know-any-better attitude that can boost championship teams. Of all the freshmen, though, defensive end Ernest Owusu is the one I just had to talk to the other day.
Here's why: Owusu is from Nashville. That'd be Nashville, Tenn. He grew up a "UT" fan all his life. But, "when Cal began recruiting me, I've loved them ever since," said Owusu, a well-spoken 19-year-old who's practiced quite well with the second-team defense. A year ago, he was still loyal to UT, and he sheepishly admits now that he liked watching Cal lose in Knoxville. His allegiance obviously has changed, and he's reminded of that constantly. "We better not lose to UT because I'd never hear the end of it," said Owusu, who wanted to leave the South to experience the West Coast with Cal's "respected" program. "All my friends gave me a hard time for moving out to California, saying, 'Ernie, you're a traitor.'" Well, if he's a traitor, step forward Benedict Owusu, we've got more questions. Such as: How does Cal beat Tennessee?
"We need to be very physical," Owusu responded. "After watching them all these years, they've always been a very physical team and they don't quit. It's a very good program and we can't come in with our heads somewhere else. We have to be focused." OK, and what happens if -- check that -- when Cal wins? "Everyone in the South knows UT, and it'd come as a shock to everyone," Owusu said. "Any loss UT goes through, it really hits them." Tennessee has lost 10 of 24 games the past two seasons, so another loss really shouldn't be all that shocking to a program that is nine years removed from its 1998 national championship season (and 10 years removed from the Peyton Manning Era). A win by Cal shouldn't be shocking, either, and neither should a storybook season that's been in the making since Tedford's 2002 arrival.