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August 31, 2007
Game of the Week: Tennessee at Cal
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.