Cal's football players periodically partake in a chant while participating in post-practice stretching. A popular one this year has a player shouting "Pac-10 champs!" with the rest of the team responding "That's us!"
As the sixth-ranked Bears prepare to begin Pac-10 play Saturday at Oregon, there are many who believe the chant will prove accurate.
Cal kicks off the conference slate as the highest-ranked Pac-10 team in the national polls. With USC's loss at Washington on Saturday, some observers believe the Bears are the favorites to capture the Pac-10 championship.
"People say Cal is the favorite to win the Pac-10 now, but people are going to be gunning for us," Cal quarterback Kevin Riley said. "We just have to be even more prepared now."
Many projected the Bears to contend for the conference title before the season, but the Trojans' loss to the Huskies has increased support for that hypothesis. It's not just that USC lost, but that it fell to a team that went 0-12 last season.
The Bears, meanwhile, notched a respectable road win at Minnesota on Saturday to improve to 3-0.
"There may be even a little more of a target, but the biggest thing is to block it out," Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed said. "Just take it week by week. If you start listening to all that, that's when it can come back and bite you and you're going to get in trouble. In our minds, USC has been and still is the (cream) of the crop until somebody knocks them off. But we're not really worried about that."
USC loss or not, the Bears realize things are different now that Pac-10 play has arrived. Coach Jeff Tedford said he noticed an increased seriousness from his players when they went through their conditioning workout Sunday.
"There was a little bit of an edge to them, opening up conference play," Tedford said. "It was very serious on Sunday, almost like we'd lost the game the day before. They were very focused, very serious about what we're getting ready to do."
The Bears did the "Pac-10 champs" chant at the end of Sunday's workout, after which linebacker Eddie Young gave an inspiring speech to the team, stressing the importance of the beginning of conference play and telling his teammates "to be about it, not talk about it."
The Pac-10 title is always Cal's goal, but you get the sense it seems more within grasp than ever to the players this season.
"People on this team realize we can be a great team," Riley said. "We've had letups in the seasons before, and we don't want that to happen. We want to be as prepared as possible for every game. I think everyone on this team is going to do that."
The Bears will find out right away where they fit in the Pac-10 pecking order. Saturday's game at Autzen Stadium may be their toughest road assignment of the season, and they follow up with USC at home next weekend.
"We feel we have something good going on here," Mohamed said. "We know if we prepare right, we can really capitalize on it. It started on Sunday with the practice, so we're getting ready to go for Saturday and hopefully continue our road to winning this thing."