Sometimes athletes don't want to answer tough questions. Other times they are eager to embrace them. This is one of those times.
California quarterback Kevin Riley knew the question about rival Stanford was coming. He'd surely already read stories about a changing of the guard in the Bay Area. He probably was aware that more than a few columnists and fans had questioned whether his coach, Jeff Tedford, was capable of prodding the Bears into taking the next step from merely good to elite.
Changing of the guard? My tookus, said Riley.
"It's disrespect," said Riley with just a hint of edge in his voice. "We beat them last year, and our offense whupped up their defense pretty good. We beat them last year when they were at their highest point of their game."
That's not an unfair assessment. Cal was widely considered one of the nation's most disappointing teams last season when it visited No. 14 Stanford, which was in the middle of the Rose Bowl race. All the Bears did was roll up 477 yards in a 34-28 win.
It was Cal's seventh victory in eight Big Games under Tedford. Both teams finished 8-5. Both landed top-25 recruiting classes. Still, the perception persists that Cal has plateaued and Stanford is rising.
Part of that is because Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh resembles Tedford, circa 2004. Just as Tedford took a program that had bottomed out, led it back to respectability and became a hot-shot coach, so has Harbaugh. The Cardinal had suffered through seven consecutive losing seasons, including two with Harbaugh, until breaking through in 2009. And Harbaugh, often colorfully, doesn't try to tamp down newly high expectations on the Farm, saying "our goal is to win the conference championship" not "sustain success."
"We're not sustaining a gosh darn thing," he said, waking up reporters at Pac-10 media day. "We despise the word sustain. We despise the word satisfaction."
(Another question: Will Harbaugh remain satisfied at Stanford? Tedford turned away a number of suitors -- the Chicago Bears, the Washington Huskies -- before signing a big contract -- $2.8 million annually -- and deciding to remain in Berkeley).
Meanwhile, Tedford has been reviewing all aspects of his operation, trying to find a way to advance his program from a team that wins seven, eight or nine games to one that goes to the school's first Rose Bowl in 51 years. He hired a new offensive coordinator last season (Andy Ludwig) and, this offseason, a new defensive coordinator (Clancy Pendergast) and special-teams coordinator (Jeff Genyk).
Tedford has talked about loosening up and making sure football remains fun for his players. He's talked about better managing the effects external expectations can have on his team.
"I do not want to get into a situation where if we do stub our toe then the whole world caves in," he said.
That said, even though Cal won seven or more games only four times from 1978-2001, the expectations, in general, figure to remain high. The early Tedford years seemed to promise Rose Bowls, so the Old Blues feel as if a promise hasn't been kept. And Tedford and Riley are well aware of this.
"It used to be eight or nine wins was a good season," Tedford said. "People were satisfied with that. But that is not good enough anymore. We have to get over that hump. We have a burning desire to go to the Rose Bowl."
Said Riley, "Cal has been waiting a long time for a Rose Bowl. Since I've been here, that's my goal, and it still is. You go out and win eight games? Standards are higher than that for Cal now. Our fans want to see more."
While Cal has fallen short of high preseason expectations in recent seasons, it also has seemed to play better when it wasn't picked at the top of the conference and perched toward the top of the preseason polls. So being picked seventh in the preseason media poll -- three spots behind Stanford -- and unranked nationally are perhaps good things.
Stanford cornerback Richard Sherman is a fifth-year senior. He suffered through the bad times at Stanford. And he suffered through last season's humbling Big Game defeat. He's hardly ready to claim that the Bay Area balance of power has shifted.
"In every rivalry it's even -- it's zero-zero and records don't matter, rankings don't matter," he said. "It's who can go out there and impose their will on the other. You don't go out there feeling like an overdog or an underdog. You just want to beat Cal."
It's possible this year's Big Game might be for high stakes in the conference pecking order. It's almost certain it will have high stakes in the Bay Area.