BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) -Jeff Tedford chuckled to himself this summer whenever somebody praised the California coach for bravely choosing to open the Golden Bears' season against mighty Tennessee.
That's because Tedford actually didn't choose the path of greatest resistance: This home-and-home series already was on Cal's schedule when he took the job in 2002.
If Tedford really had a choice, his club would take the field Saturday at Memorial Stadium with a much lower degree of difficulty.
``It's high-risk, and I don't know that there's that much of a reward,'' Tedford said. ``I think the risk probably outweighs it, because it's still a long season there ahead of you. It's a definitely a different approach, playing a team like Tennessee who is a traditional top-10 team. It really tests you right out of the gate.''
But there's no getting out of this test for the No. 12 Bears, who flunked the same exam last year in Knoxville with a 35-18 loss. Facing the 15th-ranked Volunteers in Berkeley should help, but the game's high stakes and national audience will magnify everything that happens, good or bad.
Tedford's debut with Cal five years ago was a perfect example of his ideal beginning. That 70-22 victory over a miserable Baylor squad began with a trick touchdown pass and ended with everybody talking about the new-look Golden Bears. Even an easy victory over Sacramento State two years ago was more to Tedford's liking - though quarterback Nate Longshore's season ended with an injury.
``If we played a different team, we'd get a little more confidence right off the bat,'' offensive lineman Mike Tepper said. ``But it's not a bad thing. It gives us a good chance to see where we line up against other teams from across the nation.''
Tedford has built a consistent winner during his first five seasons at Cal, yet the Bears still are a second-tier power. Thanks to a few untimely losses, Cal has been kept out of the upper echelon of national powers, where Southern California is the only West Coast occupant.
The Bears had the roster to break through last year - but the opening loss to Tennessee knocked them out of the national title discussion before it even began. Cal then had a chance to reach its first Rose Bowl in 48 years, but had to settle for a share of the Pac-10 title and a Holiday Bowl berth after consecutive road losses to USC and lowly Arizona.
During the summer, Tedford rethought his strategy for preparing his team to meet such a large challenge without the benefit of a warmup game. In 2006, he bombarded his players with images of orange jerseys and blaring renditions of ``Rocky Top,'' hoping to raise them to an emotional high - and instead, they bottomed out when things didn't go well.
``The first place I looked is in the mirror to find out where I could maybe have done a better job on motivating the team,'' Tedford said. ``Let's not worry about going to Tennessee and worry about the guys in the orange jerseys. It's more about how we play. The focus needs to be on us doing our job and executing our stuff.''
When the Volunteers agreed to this home-and-home series several years ago, they had no idea Cal would grow from a Pac-10 bottom-dweller to a top-25 program in just a few years under Tedford's instruction. Coach Phillip Fulmer claims he prefers a tough opening game, though he acknowledges he might not feel the same way if the Vols get off to an 0-1 start.
Though Tedford takes a pragmatic approach to this tough assignment, his players are much more eager to get their opportunity for redemption against their SEC counterparts.
``I love it,'' linebacker Zack Follett said. ``My freshman year, we played Sac State, and it was like I was playing a high school team. That game last year was about as big a stage as you could ever have. Now we know what to expect, and we're going to give it to them.''
Safety Thomas DeCoud said the Cal secondary used its awful performance against the Vols as a daily rallying cry in the ensuing 12 months. The embarrassment they felt after last season's loss hasn't abated, but the defensive backs all feel more prepared to match Tennessee's speed and skill.
The players are looking forward to hearing one of the loudest crowds in the history of Memorial Stadium, their often-sedate home in Strawberry Canyon. Cal plans to distribute 50,000 megaphones before the game to get the season off to a deafening start.
``I feel that it's good, especially because we played them last year, and we lost,'' said Justin Forsett, who takes over from Marshawn Lynch as Cal's starting tailback. ``You want to get a shot at them. I wouldn't want to open any other way.''

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