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September 1, 2006

Game of the Week: Cal at Tennessee

When Cal and Tennessee players needed any kind of a boost during the offseason, all they had to do was look at the top of their schedules.

For Cal, Saturday is a chance to face the SEC, to silence Neyland Stadium's 100,000-plus fans screaming "Rocky Top," and to win some believers on the East Coast.

For Tennessee, Saturday is an opportunity for redemption from a losing season, a chance to put a dent in Cal's national-title aspirations and the time to reassert itself as a premier team on the national level.

"I think in the offseason, through the summer, there's definitely a buzz," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "It's been something these guys have been looking forward to for a long time."

Saturday's matchup (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will be a statement game for both teams, making it Rivals.com's Game of the Week.

At Cal, a Tedford quarterback will not be the center of attention going into the season. Running back Marshawn Lynch (1,246 yards, 10 touchdowns) and a talented defense will be carrying the load for the Bears.

The last time UT faithful saw Tennessee, the Volunteers were on their way to a 5-6 season after losing at home to Vanderbilt. A familiar face returns to the Vols sideline Saturday. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who was Tennessee's offensive coordinator during the Peyton Manning glory years, is back in Orange this season.

How will one of the Pac-10's best handle one of the traditional powers of the SEC?

Find out in the Rivals.com Game of the Week Breakdown:

Week 1 Games of the Week: Cal at Tennessee
Tennessee offense vs. Cal defense: The Volunteers will hope Cutcliffe makes an instant impact against one of the Pac-10's best defenses. On the ground, Tennessee running back Arian Foster, who rushed for 742 yards over the final five games last season, will have his work cut out for him. If he can get past All-American defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and linebackers Desmond Bishop, Anthony Felder will be waiting. In the passing game, Cal cornerback Daymeion Hughes could give Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge trouble on one side of the field, but the loss of Cal senior Tim Mixon at the other corner spot could open doors for Tennessee receivers Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain. Edge: Cal
Cal offense vs. Tennessee defense: Cal will have the best player on the field on either side of the ball in Heisman hopeful running back Marshawn Lynch. The Golden Bears also have the element of surprise on their hands with new offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar. Dunbar brought concepts of the spread offense with him from Northwestern when he was hired in the offseason. How much of the spread Cal will show is unclear. To go with that, the Bears waited until Tuesday to name Nate Longshore, who attempted 11 passes last year, their starting quarterback. Tennessee's defense, despite losing six players in the front seven, is traditionally one of the best in the SEC. With Neyland Stadium and coordinator John Chavis on its side, it will be a tough test for Lynch and Co. Edge: Cal
Cal special teams vs. Tennessee special teams: The loss of Mixon hurts Cal in the return game, but the Bears have another weapon in DeSean Jackson, whose only punt return last year was taken back for a 49-yard touchdown. With Jackson returning punts and Lynch returning kickoffs (20.8 yards per return last year), the Bears could take advantage of the Volunteers' coverage teams, which were inconsistent last year. Austin Rogers will take over punt-return duties from Jonathan Hefney for the Vols. Edge: Cal
Cal coaches vs. Tennessee coaches: There's some symmetry between the coaching staffs. Phil Fulmer and Jeff Tedford brought in new coordinators to freshen up the offense. Tennessee added Cutcliffe to give the offense a kick in the pants, while Cal brought in Dunbar for some new ideas. Those new coordinators on offense will be countered by two of the better defensive coordinators in their respective conferences: Tennessee's Chavis and Cal's Bob Gregory. Edge: Even
Cal will win if: Lynch proves he's not just a product of the defense-optional Pac-10. Longhsore is capable at quarterback. The Bears' defense can contain Foster.
Tennessee will win if: With Neyland Stadium behind it, the Vols' young front seven neutralizes Lynch and flusters Longshore. Cutcliffe unlocks Ainge's potential and the offense begins to flourish.
X-Factor: Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge. Which Ainge will show up the one who beat out Brent Schaeffer for the starting job as a true freshman or the one who lost the starting job with a 7-of-19 performance against LSU last year?
Notes: Cal's No. 9 ranking in the preseason poll is its highest since 1952. Tennessee's No. 23 preseason ranking is its lowest since 1989. The two teams will face each other for the first time since 1987 when Tennessee won 38-12. The Pac-10 is 6-3 against the SEC over the last five years. None of those games involved either Cal or Tennessee.
Fox's pick: Cal, 21-17
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Cal, 27-21
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Cal, 24-21
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Cal, 28-17
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: Cal, 27-21
Jenn Sterger, Tailgate TV: Cal, 21-20
Make your picks on Rivals.com Pick 'Em.

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