DARTING HERE and there ...

Û Is it politically correct to be skeptical of all the preseason hype surrounding Cal? Everybody seems to buy into the No. 12 ranking and the excellent Rose Bowl prospects, but sorry, I just can't swallow it ... yet. There are just too many unknowns, not just about the Golden Bears but the entire weak Pac-10.

Û Things everyone should see before becoming believers in the Bears: A couple of strong go-to receivers. Inside running capability beyond Jahvid Best. A defense without linebacker Zack Follett that is as good as its early press clippings. Consistency from Kevin Riley. Efficiency in Jeff Tedford's latest play-calling arrangement with new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.

Û Have I mentioned the freshman field-goal kicker?

Û As for Best, forget the Heisman blather. Just keep the guy upright and healthy for 12 games. To do that, there'd better be a productive passing game.

Û One thing is certain: We'll know a lot about the Bears by late September/early October, if not today. Road games at Minnesota and Oregon preceding an Oct. 3 date against USC is a tough early stretch.

Û Enjoy Maryland today. Next year, the Bears open with vaunted UC Davis.


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Û Speaking of easing into the season, former Raiders coach Lane Kiffin makes his collegiate head coaching debut today when Tennessee hosts Western Kentucky. Revel in it now, Kiff, because a game at Florida looms in just two weeks. You know Al Davis will be watching that one.

Û From this view, it's a lot easier to evaluate Stanford. A breakout season is likely, maybe 7-5 or even 8-4, and a return to a bowl. Week 2 at Wake Forest should be telling. That's a game an improving program needs to win.

Û Biggest Stanford question: Will the Cardinal get any fans?

Û Think Pedro Martinez was a little psyched facing Tim Lincecum on Thursday night? Pedro hasn't pitched that well in a game since 2005, and it was great theater to see those two little guys go at it. It may have been a one-time-only event, and both men delivered.

Û Not a good sign that the Giants gave up just three runs in a three-game series in Philly's bandbox and still lost two out of three.

Û Brad Penny's Giants debut was unquestionably eye-opening, but let's reserve judgment until he makes two or three starts, especially his much-anticipated first outing against the Dodgers. He was just too bad in Boston to assume this kind of turnaround can be sustained.

Û The Giants desperately need Ryan Garko's "punishing against left-handers" bat — those are Brian Sabean's words — to show up from Cleveland. Hasn't arrived yet.

Û After seeing such a paltry crowd at the Coliseum on Monday night — it was announced as 10,376 but didn't look half that — it's worth wondering what the real A's attendance is this year. They have to be getting actual turnstile counts, so somebody in the organization knows the real truth.

Û Managers of the Year? Jim Tracy in the NL, Hayward's own Don Wakamatsu in the AL.

Û If I have a rooting interest anywhere, it's with Ron Washington and the Texas Rangers. It's not over yet for Texas, either in the division or the wild card. Additional good news: Seven more games against the A's.

Û For the Warriors, it has to be galling enough that Stephen Jackson wants to be traded. But traded to a championship contender? Can't blame Jackson, but you sure can rip his "buddy" Robert Rowell for giving Jack all that jack.

Û The Raiders looked better this week. Too bad the improvement was accomplished mostly by guys who probably won't even make the roster.

Û Andrew Walter, cut by the Patriots. He got beat out by undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer. Brilliant.

Û Who does Michael Crabtree think he is? JaMarcus Russell?

Û ESPN's dream game: Favre vs. Vick. The network would have to expand "SportsCenter" to four hours.

Û Speaking of "SportsCenter," anybody else increasingly hating it for a whole lot of reasons other than its quarterback obsessions? Please, more highlights, less glitz and gab.

Û Finally, I really do hope Curt Schilling runs for senator in Massachusetts. Then he'll have two bloody socks, and hopefully a fat, forever buttoned lip.

Contact Carl Steward at csteward@bayareanewsgroup.com.