BERKELEY — If Cal's goal this season is simply to win as many games as possible and qualify for the best bowl game available — a perfectly acceptable approach — then there really isn't much significance to starting Pac-10 play this early.

But if the Bears are more focused on winning the conference championship and playing in the Rose Bowl, then Saturday's matinee at Washington State deserves further analysis.

This will be the earliest the Bears have commenced Pac-10 play since 1993, when they knocked off UCLA in the season opener. Cal would prefer to know a little more about itself before starting conference competition, but it will have to proceed with the knowledge it currently has for the matchup at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash.

"This really matters," Cal All-America center Alex Mack said. "This is for the Rose Bowl, the Pac-10 championship. It's conference play. At least it's not the first game. It's important and big, but it will also keep us focused."

There are a handful of conference games being played early this season. Stanford edged Oregon State and Oregon routed Washington in openers last weekend. Along with the Cal-Washington State game, Stanford plays Arizona State on Saturday.

Ideally, teams play all of their nonconference games before beginning Pac-10 play. But television opportunities and scheduling conflicts sometime force teams to move conference games up earlier in the season.

Cal coach Jeff Tedford isn't a big fan of playing a conference game so early, especially on the road.

He said because of the 64-player roster limit for Pac-10 road games, the coaching staff has had to speed up personnel evaluation in certain areas this fall.

"You like to play your nonconference games first and then get to conference play," Tedford said. "You like to be able to figure out who's exactly going to play for you in special teams and get some game experience for guys before you have to get into conference play. That's a challenge this week to cut down to 64 for the road. You're still evaluating some situations on special teams and so on and so forth."

This will only be a taste of Pac-10 play for the Bears, who beat Michigan State 38-31 in its season opener last weekend.

Cal follows Saturday with two more nonconference games before resuming its Pac-10 schedule Oct. 4 against Arizona State.

Not only are the Bears starting Pac-10 competition earlier than they would like, they are doing so against a new coaching staff that has implemented the no-huddle, spread offense. Tedford said the team has watched film of Eastern Washington, new Cougars coach Paul Wulff's previous stop, but doesn't have a lot to go on for the conference opener.

"You just don't know what to expect," Tedford said. "We've obviously seen tape of Eastern Washington from last year to try to get a gauge on who they are. But their personnel is a little bit different at Washington State. There are a lot of unknowns playing a conference game so early, especially against somebody you don't have a lot of history with. That makes it more difficult to play a conference game that early when it's a new coach."

Notes: Tedford said the MRI on punter Bryan Anger's sprained knee came back negative. Anger is expected to be ready by Saturday. ... Washington State dropped its season opener to Oklahoma State 39-13 last weekend in Seattle.

Contact Jonathan Okanes at jokanes@bayareanewsgroup.com.