September 24, 2009
Holding two thoughts at the same time.
Point: Cal is playing better than any team in the Pac-10. That's not just a status quo argument because the Bears are one of the only three undefeated teams left in the conference, and one of very few teams (along with Miami, UCLA, Georgia, Auburn, Iowa and Cincinnati) with two wins already over teams from "Big Six" conferences. Cal has earned its No. 6 ranking in both major polls with a thorough beating of Maryland in the opener and a more standard but still comfortable victory last week at Minnesota that solidified Jahvid Best as the resident non-quarterback on the burgeoning Mount Rushmore of this season's biggest stars. With Best alone, they're a threat to win any game.
But all of the elements that made the Bears the top challenger to USC in the preseason have been evident through the first three weeks: Best is a scintillating playmaker all over the field; five different receivers already have at least five catches; the veteran front four has the defense in the top 10 nationally against the run and in sacks; and the X-factor, Kevin Riley, currently ranks as the most efficient passer in the Pac-10 with five touchdowns and no interceptions. If the Bears just handle their business in Eugene, they'll be solid favorites to beat offensively-challenged USC next week in Berkeley, and the sky's the limit from there.
Counterpoint: Cal can't win a big game on the road. I'm not much for intangibles like "home field advantage," except as last resort when there are no other clear advantages. At this point, though, clearly traveling has to be considered a disadvantage for Cal, and not just for "big games" -- for almost any game:
The Bears have lost nine of their last 11 Pac-10 matches on the road, including games at Washington, Stanford, UCLA, Oregon State and twice at Arizona. After demolishing one of the worst teams in Pac-10 history, Washington State, last September, they dropped a stunning game at reeling Maryland and went on to blow their last three away from home in-conference, all by double digits. It's like a different team outside of Berkeley.
The win at Minnesota was the Bears' best road win since September 2007, at Oregon, a game in which the Ducks a) outgained Cal by almost 100 yards, b) finished –4 in turnovers, and c) were still a yard away from winning if not for Cam Colvin's goal line giveaway en route to the winning touchdown; from there, the Bears lost their last four on the road, three as favorites.
Oregon, meanwhile, has been great at home: 12-3 overall since '07, and 2-0 this year. After their rocky start, Saturday is the opportunity to establish the Ducks as closer to the team almost everyone thought they'd be throughout the offseason than to the team the country saw lurch and collapse in a heap to begin the season in Boise; in short, a win could save their season. For Cal, a loss would mean exactly the opposite. But either way, we'll have a much better idea of the Pac-10's power structure -- or lack thereof -- as league games get underway.