Cal poses many problems

The best team in the Pac-10 over the past three years has been Southern Cal.

The second-best team: California.

The Bears of Berkeley are the last team to beat USC during the regular season. They came a whisker away from being an at-large selection in the Bowl Championship Series two years ago. They've had a quarterback taken in the first-round of the NFL draft. They've averaged more than 30 points over the last three years.

They are not the kind of team you want to open the season against if you're trying to recuperate from a 5-6 season.

But that's the challenge facing Phillip Fulmer and his Vols.

Fulmer has opened the season against only one other team as talented as California. He's never had a more daunting season opener at home. It's a game that could define Tennessee's season and Fulmer's future.

``It's a statement game for Tennessee and Cal,'' said Dave Newhouse, who covers Cal for the Oakland Tribune. ``This game will have ramifications on how teams will be ranked at the end of the year and probably in terms of bowl selections. This could be a very, very powerful game for both universities.''

There are reasons to believe Tennessee can beat Cal.

There are reasons to believe Cal will score its first win in Knoxville.

Why can Tennessee beat Cal? Because Cal is traveling over 2,500 miles to play in a hostile environment against a team intent on proving last season was a fluke.

Why can Cal win? Because the Bears have an explosive attack going against a green defense, an offensive guru in head coach Jeff Tedford and a veteran defense that returns eight starters.

Compared to SEC teams, Cal most resembles Florida – both in talent and scheme on offense.

Cal has won 26 games over the last three seasons, the school's best three-year period since 1949-51. The Bears have won at least eight games each of the last three seasons. They have beaten Washington four in a row after losing the previous 19. They were ranked in the final top 10 poll in 2004. They have seen season ticket sales climb from 16,200 in 2002 to 40,134 last year.

And this could be Cal's best team under Tedford, said Newhouse.

``Cal is deeper than it's ever been,'' Newhouse said.

Cal's offense should be terrific again and the defense has a strong front seven, with two or three linebackers that will be NFL draft picks, according to Newhouse.

On offense, Tedford is mixing his pro set with a spread. He hired Mike Dunbar from Northwestern, which had considerable success running the unique offense in the Big Ten.

Newhouse gave several reasons for Cal incorporating the spread. One, the offensive line loses three starters and won't be as powerful or experienced as last year. Two, Cal has a couple of mobile quarterbacks that likely would be more effective in a spread offense. Three, Oregon, one of the Pac-10 teams to beat, runs the spread, and by Cal using the spread itself, it gives the Bears a better chance to slow down the Ducks.

California's offense will be difficult to slow down. Tedford has four quarterbacks from which to chose. Nate Longshore opened last season as the starter but suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the opener. Steve Levy, a New Yorker who moved to fullback, switched back to quarterback and won the last two games. Joe Ayoob passed for 1,707 yards but completed just 49 percent of his passes and was benched in favor of Levy. Kyle Reed is the best athlete.

``It sounds like the Keystone Cops,'' Newhouse said. ``Levy (6-1, 230) basically saved the season. If Longshore is the quarterback, Tennessee will lick its chops because he's the most immobile of the four.''

Tedford will not play two quarterbacks, Newhouse said.

``The real problem is going to be, will he select the right quarterback,'' Newhouse said. ``Everybody's got their favorite. Longshore has a very strong arm. Levy is a charismatic leader, the kind you'd follow into combat. Ayoob is a question mark. He's kind of erratic.''

Cal has two outstanding running backs in Marshawn Lynch (1,246 yards in less than 10 full games) and Justin Forsett (999, 7.6 yards per carry).

At receiver, DeSean Jackson had 38 catches for 601 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman. Robert Jordan caught 34 passes. LaVelle Hawkins, an LSU transfer, had 18 catches despite being sidelined by an injury.

Cal's front four is solid but the Bears don't have a big-time pass rusher. At linebacker, Desmond Bishop made second-team All-Pac-10 and Anthony Felder and Zack Follett were Freshmen All-Americans.

Cal returns two secondary starters.

``It's been proven you can throw on Cal,'' Newhouse said. ``The way to beat Cal is to throw.''

Question is: Will Tennessee's passing game be sharp enough in Game One to exploit Cal's suspect secondary?

The second key question: Will Tennessee's young front seven be able to control Cal's running game?

For Tennessee to win its opener, the answer to those two questions has to be: yes.

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