Tedford has a chance to lead Cal to a Pac-10 title
If those in Trojanland are griping over their annual upset — or is it annual set-up? — in the Northwest, there may actually be another Pac-10 outpost where the news that Washington had beaten USC, 16-13, is not exactly welcome.
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That would be in Berkeley, because now that the Trojans have left the top 10, disappearing along with them is the cover they have provided the rest of the conference. That means that a lot more eyes now turn to Cal, which is 3-0, ranked sixth in the country and ready for ... well, just what?
Cal coach Jeff Tedford, hired to take over a one-win program, has taken the Bears to six consecutive bowls and their best run of success in a half century. But the nagging question is whether Cal can be anything more — such as a Rose Bowl team for the first time since 1959.
"I really believe that right now they're very hungry," Tedford said of his team. "I have a lot of confidence that we're going to stay that way."
Still, the Bears have been down this road before. After Aaron Rodgers quarterbacked Cal to an 11-1 regular season in 2004, its only defeat a 23-17 nailbiter to USC, the Bears have tripped every time they've been presented a chance to step up among the nation's elite.
The most calamitous case came two years ago when Cal was 5-0, ranked No. 2 in the country and poised to jump to No. 1 after top-ranked LSU was upset earlier in the day. But the Bears lost at home to unranked Oregon State and won just one more game the rest of the season.
There may not have been collapses like that every year, but there have been cases of stage fright. The Bears opened the 2006 season ranked ninth and were smoked at No. 23 Tennessee, 35-18, in a game that wasn't remotely that close. They won eight in a row to climb back to No. 8, but a week before a showdown with USC, they went belly up at Arizona. They followed that up by losing to the Trojans, too.
In 2005, Cal started 5-0 and was ranked No. 10. But the Bears were upset at UCLA and lost four of the next five.
Tedford says the bottom falling out of the 2007 season taught him a lesson as well as the players who remain. He said that with each loss that season, he resolved to work harder and scheme better. In hindsight, he says, the problem was not so much about Xs and Os as it was his team's psyche.
"I learned a big lesson from that," Tedford said. "Every team has different personalities. This team, I think, is 100 percent team-oriented. I've learned a lesson that if you do run into adversity, there is a certain amount of focus you need to put on the mindset and on the confidence and the self esteem of what is going on."
Tedford believes this team has much better character among its leaders. But on the field, all that's really clear about Cal three weeks into the season is that it has a premier tailback in Jahvid Best, who after losing his lunch against Maryland last year, has been busy handing defenses theirs ever since.