(AP) – In two years, California has gone from a 1-11 season to college football’s big stage.
The 23rd-ranked Golden Bears are off to their best start since 2007 and are heading into their biggest game in coach Sonny Dykes’ three-year tenure when they travel to No. 5 Utah on Saturday night in a matchup of the Pac-12’s only remaining undefeated teams.
With ESPN’s ”College GameDay” on hand for a Cal game for the first time since 2009, the Bears (5-0, 2-0) know this is the chance to show that they have returned to relevance in college football and are ready to contend for a conference title after years of struggles.
”We’re trying to stay in the national conversation,” receiver Bryce Treggs said. ”We understand if we beat a great Utah team, we’ll obviously move up in the charts. We’re viewing this as a good opportunity to go in the national spotlight and make a statement.”
While the presence of GameDay and the hype around the game are exciting, the message Dykes has been giving his team this week is to tune out all the outside noise and simply prepare to play a football game.
”We were ranked last and we didn’t talk about it,” Dykes said. ”Now that we aren’t ranked last we’re not going to talk about it either.”
Utah (4-0, 1-0) is ranked No. 5 for just the third time in program history, with this being the earliest in the season. The Utes, who have shot up the polls since routing then-No. 13 Oregon two weeks ago, have gone from being a plucky team with a nasty defense to having eyes from across the country being centered on Salt Lake City.
”It’s almost like living in a biosphere or a dome,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. ”You’ve got people tapping on the glass and looking in at you. You’ve just got to block it out and go about your business and not let it affect you because it can be a distraction.”
That’s often easier said than done. Whittingham said it’s business as usual within the team, but there’s a lot more going on in the peripheral – especially with GameDay in town. There’s been more interest in the program from recruits recently. And the team that has thrived in the underdog role is suddenly the favorite.
”If you want to be a good team, you’ve got to handle the success you’ve had and the attention that’s being placed on your program,” Whittingham said. ”That’s part of the deal. You’ve got to be able to block out the noise and continue to stay focused and continue to do the things that got you where you’re at."
The players followed their coach’s lead and insist no one is buying into the hype. With some prodding, linebacker Jared Norris admitted the attention is nice, but was eager to advance the conversation.
Running back Devaontae Booker, who has rushed for 443 yards with four TDs, thinks the team can still play with a chip on its shoulder and said the leaders had a talk at the beginning of the off-week last week.
”I don’t think none of us are feeling ourself too much,” Booker said. ”I kind of look at it as we’re still the underdog. It don’t matter if we’re No. 5 or whatever. We still have to go out there and win games if we want to be the best and win it all.
”We still have to reiterate to them because some guys still want to go down that bad trail. With a week break, we still had to tell them you can’t be a distraction to this team or do anything stupid to hurt this team. I think they got the message.”
The Utes are 6 1/2-point favorites to beat the Bears, who are led by record-setting quarterback Jared Goff and have the chance for their first 6-0 start since 1950.
The excitement around the program is noticeable to the players in their daily life on campus. Dykes said he is mostly in a coaching cocoon but has noticed subtle changes.
”When you get coffee or something in the morning maybe those people are a little nicer to you,” Dykes said. ”I don’t have to worry about somebody poisoning my coffee like I used to.”
After squandering a 4-1 start last year by losing six of their final seven games when players said issues of complacency ended up doing them in, the Bears are remaining focused on the immediate this season.
”Right now it’s still early in the year so you can’t sit there and worry about getting pats on the back for something you did last week when you have a game in five more days,” safety Stefan McClure said. ”We’re really just focused onto the next game now.”
Goff is the seventh-highest rated passer in the FBS (170.5), having already posted four 300-yard games while totaling 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.
He leads a Cal offense which is averaging 43.4 points to rank second in the Pac-12 behind USC. Utah’s defense, though, has yet to give up more than 24 points while forcing 11 turnovers, second in the conference behind Cal (18).