As Cal begins the defining three games of its schedule Saturday, there is a growing feeling that the Bears are the best team in the conference.
Now, they have to prove it.
Each game provides a special problem. Saturday’s game against Oregon in Eugene puts the Bears in Autzen Stadium, regarded as the most hostile environment for visiting teams.
But the Bears won the last time they played there, in 2007, and coach Jeff Tedford has been preparing his team by playing loud crowd noises over the loudspeakers at practice. And the Bears won a tough road game in a hostile environment at Minnesota last Saturday with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Most important, the Bears match up well with the Ducks, with speedy linebackers who can control the Oregon running game. It was the play of these linebackers in both spring and summer practices that made me think this could be Tedford’s best team.
Even Oregon’s quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, is more of a running threat. Officially, he’s gained 145 yards on 33 carries because the NCAA idiotically deducts yards lost on sacks from running totals. A better measure of his running ability is his long gain of 33 yards and four touchdowns.
Passing is a different matter. Masoli, who starred at City College of San Francisco, has completed only 45 percent of his passes and hasn’t thrown for a touchdown.
The biggest test for the Bears in this three-game stretch will be USC, despite the Trojans’ upset at the hands of Washington last Saturday. This is the fourth year in a row that USC has lost an early-season conference game, giving credence to Pete Carroll’s frequent statement that the Trojans’ toughest games are always within the conference.
Does this mean that USC is vulnerable this year, or that the Huskies are much better than anticipated? I’m leaning to the second conclusion — we’ll know more after Saturday night’s game between Washington and Stanford — because Tyrone Willingham recruited some talented players at Washington, though he didn’t coach them well.
After missing the final eight games last season, quarterback Jake Locker is back, and he’s a special talent.
Cal’s third hurdle, UCLA, will be tough, too. Rick Neuheisel’s history suggests that he will eventually do something really stupid and get fired, but for now, he’s got the Bruins on the road back.
So, it won’t be easy, but it never is in the Pac-10, which doesn’t get the recognition it deserves because national writers are obsessed with the SEC and Big 12 conferences.
The good news is that the Bears are well-equipped to deal with their tough conference schedule because they are so well-balanced.
It starts with the defense, which is capable of stopping both the run and the pass. Receiver Steve Decker gave them fits last Saturday, but he does that to everybody.
The offense has shown equal balance. Jahvid Best is the top running back in the country and has been the focus of the offense, but when he had to, quarterback Kevin Riley stepped up big time in the fourth quarter last Saturday, especially on two deep throws to Jeremy Ross that were right on the money. For the season, Riley has thrown five touchdowns and no interceptions, and he’s the top-rated quarterback in the conference.
So, the Bears may well be the best team in the conference, but they have to start proving that Saturday.
Cal vs. Oregon
WHEN: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
WHERE: Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Ore.
TV: ABC (Ch. 7)
RADIO: KGO (810 AM)
LINE: Cal favored by 5½