The Bay Area's college football teams open the 2011 season Saturday within a few miles and hours of each other.

Unless San Jose State pulls an upset out of its helmet at No. 7 Stanford, the second game of the day -- Cal against Fresno State at Candlestick Park -- shapes up as the most intriguing.

It's as dangerous an opener as the Bears have played in years, a game they are supposed to win but, for a variety of reasons, might not.

With Cal struggling to sell tickets and more than 10,000 Fresno State fans expected to attend, the Bulldogs might feel like the home team.

Nor will they be in awe of Cal -- quite the opposite, in fact. The Bulldogs have won seven of their past 11 games against teams from the Big Six conferences, including a victory at UCLA three years ago.

Meanwhile, the Bears are facing strong headwinds. After posting a losing record in 2010, they're picked near the bottom of the Pac-12 North, breaking in a new quarterback (Zach Maynard) and tailback (Isi Sofele) and playing their home games away from home, at AT&T Park.

A loss to Fresno State would add to the mounting scrutiny on coach Jeff Tedford, whose team is 29-22 in the past four years.

A loss to Fresno State would push Cal's anxious fan base one step closer to the brink of panic.

Most of all, a loss would support the notion that Cal is headed for another mediocre season.

If the Bears cannot beat Fresno State and its rookie quarterback, Derek Carr, how can they handle the best of the Pac-12? What chance do they have against Oregon and USC next month?

That said, there's always a tendency to overreact to early-season results -- what happens in September doesn't always correlate to what happens later in the season.

Last year, for instance, the Bears won their first two games by a combined score of 104-10.

  • Stanford's goal Saturday is to dominate early, pull quarterback Andrew Luck at halftime and get his inexperienced backups (Brett Nottingham and Robbie Picazo) as much playing time as possible.

    Every snap will make Luck's understudies better prepared for emergency duty later in the season.

  • The Spartans' goal is also straightforward: Remain as competitive as possible for as long as possible -- and stay healthy.

    SJSU cannot afford a repeat of last year, when a bevy of key players suffered serious injuries long before the first conference game.

  • While Oregon's showdown with Louisiana State has received top billing this weekend, the Boise State-Georgia duel will potentially have more impact on the Bowl Championship Series race.

    A Boise State victory would increase the chances of the Broncos crashing the BCS party -- and potentially taking an at-large slot away from one of the power conferences.

    It's safe to assume that Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 officials are rooting for Georgia.

  • A similar situation exists within the Pac-12. For all the focus on Oregon-LSU, three other games -- all involving opponents from non-BCS conferences -- will reveal the true strength (or weakness) of the league.

    If Cal stumbles against Fresno State, UCLA loses at Houston and Colorado falls at Hawaii, it will be a dark Saturday for the Pac-12.

  • Looking for a reason to be optimistic about the league's prospects this season? Consider the schedules.

    The three teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll (Oregon, Stanford and USC) have three of the easiest schedules in the conference -- only Washington State's lineup is softer.

    In theory, that will allow the Ducks, Cardinal and Trojans to pile up victories and remain ranked throughout the season.

    For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.