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Friday, October 08, 2004

Big Moment for the Cal Golden Bears

Last year, no one expected it. The USC Trojans traveled up to Berkeley, California, climbed the hills near campus to Memorial Stadium in Strawberry Canyon, and lost in an Triple OT thriller, 34-31. That loss ultimately caused USC a shot in the BCS "title" game (a game which LSU won) and cost USC perhaps an outright national title. And it wasn't like the Trojans lost to a bad team, either. The Cal Bears, upstarts, were pretty good.

They have hot (relatively) young coach in Jeff Tedford, one of the two best quarterback gurus in the country (as Norm Chow, the USC offensive coordinator, is the other), and one of the best QBs in the country in Aaron Rodgers. Off course, USC has one of the best QBs in the country in Matt Leinart. Ironically, a funny thing has happened on the way to a Heisman Trophy for either of those QBs -- the candidacy of Kyle Orton, the Purdue QB.

Here's the take on the game from the Cal side. Click here for the perspective from the USC side.

USC has been a perennial contender for a national title under Pete Carroll. Cal fans haven't had this much excitement since the days of Bruce Snyder, who then left for Arizona State in an ill-fated move. Bruce who? You ask. You're right, as only the Cal faithful remember Bruce Snyder as quickly as they'd like to forget Keith Gilbertson (who had arrived in Berkeley after years of success as Don James' offensive coordinator at Washington) and Tom Holmoe (the former 49er DB under Bill Walsh and a Stanford assistant). Put very simply, Cal fans haven't had a whole lot to cheer about in a long time.

Until last year and the upset over USC and now this year. And why is this year and this game so important? Well, the Bears should have confidence going into the game at USC because they have tons of weapons on offense and a very sturdy defense. USC had serious trouble down at The Farm when they barely eked out a victory over a Stanford team that no one has expected anything from, and the Bears, like the Cardinal, are a balanced team. Only better. Much better.

The reason the game is so important is because last year no one expected much from Cal, and, certainly, no one expected them to beat Pete Carroll's USC Trojans. This year, many pundits are calling for the upset. An upset on the road against the top-ranked team in the country, no less. Every year, there is a program that is trying to get to the next level. A few years ago, Mark Richt had to win some big games to make Georgia part of the national conversation, and his Bulldogs did just that. Nick Saban had to do the same at LSU, and now Jeff Tedford has to do the same at Cal.

Lose this game, and people will shrug and say, "it's just Cal, what did you expect?" And then they'll drink their newly mixed Kool-Aid and tell themselves that a bowl game will be nice, wait until next year, and that perhaps the best they can ever hope for are Top 25 finishes, ostensibly in the bottom 15 of the Top 25. Now that's a bit harsh, of course, because one loss won't write the epitaph for Jeff Tedford at Berkeley. Far from it. The Bears will have many great moments under his watch.

Win this game, though, and people will start talking about your team in a different light. "Did you see what they did on Saturday? They went down to Los Angeles and beat USC in their own house? When was the last time that happened?" And this isn't a USC team that's having an "off" year. This is a USC team with high-octane players on both sides of the ball, the explosive Reggie Bush and Leinart at QB. Plus a solid group on defense. Win this game, and you'll move up dramatically in the polls. Win this game and win out, and you're talking BCS bowl on New Year's day. Win this game and win out and get a break here and there, and you're talking playing for the national title.

Win this game, and the Cal Bears are taking a magic carpet ride to college football heights that they haven't seen in a very long time.

Will the Golden Bears do it?

I honestly don't know.

But what I do know is that this should be one great football game between two heavyweight contenders. For those of you whose football interests don't go west of the Mississippi, you should check this one out.

You won't be disappointed.

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