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August 31, 2007

Game of the Week: Tennessee at Cal

Video Preview | Head-to-Head Breakdown

The excitement is building in Berkeley. Again.

They're talking loud and proud. Again.

The University of California's season-opening football game against Tennessee has attracted a sellout crowd of more than 76,000 an attendance figure in Berkeley usually reserved for Stanford, USC and anti-war demonstrations.

Even the skinflints on "Tightwad Hill,'' the grassy area behind venerable Memorial Stadium where Cal football games can be watched for free, might even buy into the idea that this year the Bears will finally stake a claim among college football's national elite.

The last three years Cal was at the lip of national prominence only to get punched squarely in the mouth.

In 2004, the Bears were angry at being left out of a BCS bowl, but then were routed by Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

In 2005 they got off to a 5-0 start, but lost four of their next five.

In 2006 they opened the season ranked ninth, were promptly annihilated by Tennessee 35-18, and were never really taken seriously again.

"We won 10 games last year and I think the question that gets asked most is (about) Tennessee,'' Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "You might get a little bit of 'Oh, by the way, good job in the bowl game.'

"That's what comes out of last year, but that's the worst we've ever played (the Tennessee loss), I think. I don't think in five years I can remember looking up and being down 35-0."

Of course, it was hard to remember when Tennessee was starting a season seeking redemption.

The Volunteers sputtered to a 5-6 finish in 2005 and were determined to re-establish themselves as a nationally significant team before a raucous crowd in Knoxville.

"That helped us last year when we had a big win over Cal," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "It got us back on track after we had the real poor season - for us - in '05, and we wanted to show people what we were really about as a program. (Opponents) hoped we'd just go away, and we didn't go away."

Instead, the Volunteers won going away as quarterback Erik Ainge passed for 291 yards, including touchdown passes of 42 and 80 yards to Robert Meachem, who embarrassed Cal's then-freshman cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson.

But this time Tennessee might start freshman cornerback Eric Berry as part of a rebuilt secondary that's facing perhaps the nation's premier group of receivers in Cal's DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan.

Also, Ainge has a broken little finger on his right (passing) hand and running back LaMarcus Coker is suspended.

Cal also has home-field advantage, and the revenge motive in its favor.

"It's not really revenge. I think, if anything, it's redemption," Tedford said. "We didn't play very well last year when we went there and probably got caught a little too much focusing on (Tennessee) and the environment and that type of thing.

"If we go out and play to our potential we'll have a chance to be successful."

If not, the Bears and all their optimistic fans in that sellout crowd will be left painfully disappointed. Again.

Week 1 Game of the Week: No. 15 Tennessee at No. 12 California
California rushing offense vs. Tennessee run defense: After two seasons in which he was considered one of the premier backup running backs in the nation, California's Justin Forsett steps into the starting role. Forsett, who has rushed for 1,674 yards in his career, will ease the loss of first-round draft choice Marshawn Lynch. Forsett has big-play ability and benefits from running behind an experienced offensive line. The group up front is anchored by center Alex Mack and tackle Mike Gibson. Last season, the Bears averaged 163 rushing yards per game. Tennessee held the Bears to 64 rushing yards a year ago, but overall was below average on run defense. Linebacker Jerod Mayo heads a list of five returning starters on the Tennessee defense. The Volunteers have allowed just six running backs to rush for 100 yards in their last 37 games. Edge: Tennessee
California passing offense vs. Tennessee pass defense: The Bears' trio of receivers DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan all had at least 46 catches and averaged at least 12.4 yards per reception last season. Quarterback Nate Longshore threw for more than 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. Containing them could be a problem for the Volunteers. Safety Jonathan Hefney is All-American caliber, but he's the only proven player in the secondary. True freshman Eric Berry may start and at least figures to get extensive playing time. The Volunteers need to pressure Longshore, which they did very successfully in last season's crushing of Cal. Mayo had three sacks. Edge: California
Tennessee rushing offense vs. California run defense: LaMarcus Coker, the Volunteers' leading rusher from '06, won't be available Saturday because of a suspension. However, Arian Foster is available, and he picked up 879 yards in 2005 and rushed for 69 against Cal last season. Tennessee's offensive line play was disappointing in '06, but the word out of Knoxville is that area figures to be vastly improved. We'll take their word for it. Five opponents rushed for more than 150 yards in'06 against the Cal defense, which has three new starters in the defensive line. The Bears also lost leading tackler Desmond Bishop, but feel linebacker Zack Follett will contend for postseason honors. Edge: Tennessee
Tennessee passing offense vs. California pass defense: Erik Ainge, who threw for 2,989 yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago, riddled the Cal secondary for 291 yards and three touchdowns last season. But two of those touchdown passes were to Robert Meachem, who is no longer on the roster. Neither are Jayson Swain and Bret Smith, who ranked second and third in receptions for Tennessee last season. Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe aren't as good as the departed wideouts, but junior college transfer Kenny O'Neal has shown flashes. Tennessee no longer has Meachem, but Cal no longer has All-American cornerback Daymeion Hughes. Sophomore corner Syd'Quan Thompson improved as the season progressed last year and figures to be a good one. Cal's pass rush is average at best. Edge: Tennessee
California special teams vs. Tennessee special teams: Jackson was the nation's premier punt return man last season. He brought four back for touchdowns in '06 and has five returns for touchdowns in his career. Kicker Tom Schneider is solid, and punter Andrew Larson is one of the best in the Pac-10. Tennessee punter Britton Colquitt could be an unsung hero if he can get sufficient hang time on his kicks and neutralize Jackson. Hefney is a solid punt return man for the Volunteers, but they have questions about redshirt freshman kicker Daniel Lincoln. Edge: California
California coaches vs. Tennessee coaches: Phillip Fulmer has directed Tennessee for 14 years and the Volunteers have endured just one losing season in that span. He has a national championship to his credit, although detractors point out it was almost a decade ago. David Cutcliffe is one of the country's best quarterback coaches. Receivers coach Trooper Taylor is already highly regarded, and his profile will be enhanced if the Vols receivers remain productive this year. Jeff Tedford turned around a Cal program that had endured five consecutive losing seasons before his arrival, and the Bears have not won fewer than seven games in his five seasons in Berkeley. Edge: Tennessee
Tennessee will win if: The Volunteers definitely need to pressure Longshore just as they did a year ago when Mayo posted three sacks. Offensively, the Vols need to run the ball well and execute a good short passing game. Tennessee wants to control the ball and keep the Cal offense off the field.
Cal will win if: The Bears must prove they can match Tennessee physically up front and keep Tennessee's running game in check. They also need to protect Longshore so he can capitalize on Cal's apparent advantage over Tennessee's inexperienced defensive backs.
X-factor: Ainge broke the little finger on his right (passing) hand in practice. Though he still plans to play, it raises a legitimate question about how effectiveness. Some of his teammates said the injury wasn't an issue in practice, but game action is different. If his performance is compromised by the injury, the Volunteers can go to Jonathan Crompton, who is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the country.
Notes: Tennessee's Hefney has made 36 consecutive starts at safety. He has a chance to break the school record of 49 consecutive starts held by former center Scott Wells (2000-2003). The Volunteers have scored at least 30 points 54 times with David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator. They're 52-2 in those games. If cornerback Eric Berry is in the starting lineup, he will be the first true freshman to start a season opener on defense in Fulmer's 14 seasons as Tennessee's coach. The only other true freshman starters under Fulmer were quarterback Brent Schaeffer in 2004 and offensive tackle Michael Munoz in 2000. At No. 12, California is appearing in the Associated Press preseason rankings for the fourth consecutive season. From 1955 to 2003, the Bears appeared in the preseason poll just twice. Last season Cal had 107 plays that covered 20 yards or more, including 58 on pass plays. Cal has established a website, www.The1ToWatch.com, to promote DeSean Jackson as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Jackson, a wide receiver and punt return man, wears jersey No. 1.
Buchanan's pick: California, 27-20
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: California, 27-23
Mike Huguenin, college sports editor: California, 21-17
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: California, 31-28
Check out the rest of the Rivals.com Expert Picks.

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