Working the system

Begin with this: It was going to be someone.

It was going to be someone whom Cal coach Jeff Tedford produced as his latest greatest thing behind center, because that's what Tedford does. The man is a quarterback factory. This is his territory.

There was Kyle Boller, and before that Joey Harrington, and before that Akili Smith, and before that Billy Volek and David Carr and Trent Dilfer. Strong college QBs all -- and every one of them touched along the way by time spent with Tedford, either as an assistant or a head coach.

Or, in the words of Tedford's latest greatest thing, "He breaks down the position into little details and helps you understand the defenses in terms of what they're trying to do to you, as well as what we're trying to do on offense."

Seems to work OK. All of which brings us not merely to the latest thing, but to the largest challenge.

When Tedford found Aaron Rodgers at Butte Community College in California three years ago, neither man probably expected things to end up quite precisely where they are: Rodgers boasting a 190.3 passer rating that is second-best in the nation, and Tedford's Cal Bears preparing to rely quite heavily on that kind of accuracy and production if it is to have a chance at knocking off top-ranked USC on Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

For Cal, this is the game that was. Not only are the Bears ranked No. 7, giving this matchup its spiciest flavor in a good half-century, but they are also the team that stood between USC and an undisputed national championship last season via the triple-overtime defeat Cal handed the Trojans in Berkeley.

"I think (last year's game) goes a long way," Rodgers says of a game Cal ultimately won 34-31. "We were up 21-7 and had two drives deep in their territory that didn't work out ... We got a lot of confidence playing them."

That goes double for Rodgers, for whom the USC game was almost transformational. The transfer starter realized then that he belonged on the national stage, that playing for Tedford wasn't something beyond his grasp. He finished out an Insight Bowl season at Cal despite dealing with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and since coming to camp healthy this fall, Rodgers has been lights-out most of the time while throwing to a veteran group of Bears receivers.

It's a great story, of course. The catch being, there'll be another one quite like it just around the corner.

The talk around Cal already is of the possibility of Rodgers bolting for the NFL after this season -- no surprise, given the number of Tedford-tutored QBs who either made it to Tha League or are still actively involved in it. For his part, Rodgers says, "The NFL has always been a dream of mine." He and Tedford spoke about the subject before the season began and essentially agreed to shelve the conversation until Cal is done playing.

But as good as Rodgers is, the high probability is that you are looking at No. 7 in an ongoing series of Tedford success stories behind center. It is partly to do with Tedford's particular adeptness at creating offensive schemes that are difficult to defend from one series to the next, and it is partly to do with the fact that, you get right down to it, Tedford knows how to coach quarterbacks.

The typical Tedford offensive strategy involves play-calling of a nature just unpredictable enough for Rodgers to amiably label it "erratic." What Tedford does perhaps better than most college coaches is self-scout, which is to say, he and Rodgers spend an inordinate amount of time watching film of the Bears' offense to spot their own tendencies in terms of what they like to run.

Those tendencies almost certainly will be dragged out into the light of day against USC, whose defense, parlayed into a power by head coach Pete Carroll, isn't much into being surprised. And anyway, one Tedfordian touch isn't a secret at all: He wants Cal's offense on the field as soon as possible.

"We come right out. We're aggressive," Rodgers says. "Coach always wants the ball. He doesn't want to kick off. He wants to go down the field, score early and put the pressure on the defense. ... Two of the top minds in the country, I think, are Coach Tedford on offense and Coach Carroll on defense."

In that regard, it'll be Rodgers to whom Tedford turns to make things work on Saturday, and very few people saw that one coming. After a perfectly fine high-school career in Chico, Calif., that produced not a single NCAA scholarship offer, Rodgers enrolled at Butte College and began facing the possibility that he was nearing the end of his football odyssey.

But that was before Tedford, in the midst of taking a 1-10 Cal team from the year before and turning it into a 7-5 surprise in his first year on the job, rolled around to have a look at Rodgers in the fall of 2002. Tedford thought there might be something there. Rodgers, who in the pre-Tedford days remembers once thinking to himself, "Anywhere but Cal," realized the chance that lay before him in the person of the former Oregon and Fresno State assistant.

You could say things worked out. You could also say that, win or lose on Saturday, Rodgers is likely in his final year with Tedford at Cal.

This much we know: Tedford won't be without a Next Greatest Thing for long.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com