Cal eager to prove itself -- again

Is it Berkeley or California? Depends.

Berkeley is a philosophy class with John Searle, an economics seminar with George Akerlof or a protest march led by students with Noam Chomsky readers tucked in their hemp backpack.

California, on the other hand, is a burgeoning Pac-10 powerhouse, the No. 7 ranked football team in the land and the best purveyor of butt whippings in Division I-A.

That is not a flowery bit of hyperbole; it's a measurable fact. The Golden Bears lead the nation with a 37-point margin of victory, ranking first in scoring and seventh in scoring defense.

They also are the last team to send top-ranked USC home frowning over a span of 25 games, handing the Trojans a 34-31 triple-overtime defeat in 2003.

Yet many folks struggle with the Berkeley-California duality. It's hard to dismiss 18 Nobel Prizes crowding the mantel, but that academic excellence also makes it difficult for some to take the Bears seriously as Saturday afternoon gladiators.

Like, say, ESPN GameDay's Lee Corso, who predicted last week that USC would "crush" Cal and turn the Pac-10 game of the year into all-you-can-eat revenge buffet.

He's hardly alone. Fans in the Big 12 and the SEC might begrudgingly grant the Trojans respect, but the general feeling is Cal is the West Coast flavor of the month, a squad that would fall into the middle of the pack if it played in a Red State, where football really matters.

"I think that's mostly a sense of regional pride," tight end Garrett Cross opined about the Bears doubters. "And we probably still do have a little to prove."

That's true. Cal is riding a six-game winning streak, extending into last season, but the USC victory was the only one against a ranked team over the past two years. It's also worth noting that last year's celebrated 8-6 finish would hardly wash in Norman, Tallahassee or Ann Arbor.

The 3-0 start came at the expense of teams that are a combined 4-11.

The Bears are still the new kids on the block, just three years removed from a 1-10 season, so perhaps that's why the Trojans insist on retaining a degree of gravitas this week, refusing to cooperate with reporters trying to play up the "revenge angle." Over at Heritage Hall, it's all business, never personal, when the subject of last year is broached.

"I'm not bringing [revenge] up to get them jacked," Trojans coach Pete Carroll said. "I'm bringing it up as a [possible] distraction. That's not why we're playing."

Upon hearing that, Bears safety Ryan Gutierrez acted as though Carroll had tried to offer him a reasonable price on the Golden Gate Bridge.

"They're probably lying about that -- think about it," he said. "We are the team that kept them from getting a shot at the true No. 1 last year. If I were in their shoes, I'd be a little bit pissed off."

The teams are similar. Both have coaches who quickly turned around sagging programs in Carroll and Jeff Tedford. Both have marquee junior quarterbacks (USC's Matt Leinart and Cal's Aaron Rodgers). Both have versatile running back tandems (USC with LenDale White and Reggie Bush and Cal with J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch). Both have dominant defenses, though USC's is stocked with future NFL draft picks and Cal's is not.

Cal also has some decided advantages. It's receiving corps is deeper and more accomplished than the Trojans, who are talented but unproven.

And the Bears are far more veteran, with only 11 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep, just three of whom are starters. Twenty freshmen and sophomores dot USC's depth chart, with nine starting.

Still, in terms of pure talent, the only team on the West Coast that matches up with the Trojans is the Seattle Seahawks. Even Tedford doesn't rate his manpower as equal.

"They have blue chip players every single place on their team," he said. "I'm not knocking our players or boo hooing about our players because we have a tremendous group of young men. ... I think it's very well documented that SC is one of the most, if not the most, talented team in the country."

Cal is still Berkeley. It played in front of an average of 38,000 fans last year (though 59,000 showed up for the lone home game this season against New Mexico State) and hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since 1958. It's never beaten a No. 1 team in six tries.

But as long as Tedford, one of the nation's hottest, young coaching talents, hangs around, Berkeley might start to mean something else -- like attracting 92,000 fans to the Coliseum, the biggest turnout for a game between the schools since 1930.

"We recognize the magnitude of the game," Gutierrez said. "Up until recently people had no idea where Berkeley was. All I can say is we'll see. This week provides us a chance to really show people."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.