SAN FRANCISCO — The unfamiliarity with each other and the lack of a common opponent makes tonight's Emerald Bowl at AT&T Park somewhat of a mystery. But the only information Cal needs is the letter "U" on Miami's helmets.
The Hurricanes may not be the Hurricanes of earlier this decade, but the history of their program was all the Bears needed to earn their respect. Miami may not be the elite program it once was, but Cal knows they recruit nothing but athletes in South Florida.
"I just know when I click on the film, I see those guys running 100 miles per hour and hitting like Mack trucks," Cal linebacker Worrell Williams said. "We have our hands full with these guys. There is talent all over the place. It's going to be a fun thing once we all hit the field on Saturday."
The Bears see their share of athletic teams in the Pac-10. USC may be unparalleled athletically, at least on defense. Oregon and Oregon State also possess excellent team speed.
Cal's players said Miami's athleticism would rank near the top of the Pac-10.
"They're real athletic," Cal tailback Jahvid Best said. "It's going to be a challenge for us. I don't think we've played anybody as fast as them."
On the flip side, the Hurricanes seem just as concerned about Cal's team speed, especially on defense. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris called the Bears defense one of the best they've played all year.
What makes the matchup a little more of a wild card is the inexperience of the Hurricanes. Miami depends on several freshmen and sophomores in key roles. The Hurricanes may be talented, but they've also been plagued by inconsistency.
Miami began the year 2-3, then reeled off a five-game win streak, highlighted by quality wins over Wake Forest and Virginia Tech. That moved the Hurricanes into the national rankings for the first time since near the beginning of the 2006 season.
But just when it appeared Miami's young nucleus was putting it together, it ended the regular season with back-to-back losses at Georgia Tech and North Carolina State.
"We didn't really have the season we were planning on," Miami left tackle Jason Fox said. "We set high goals at Miami. We plan on winning championships. That's just the expectations we hold ourselves to. It didn't turn out the way we liked it, but now we have a great opportunity to play a really good team in a bowl game. A win versus Cal could really cap off the season in a good way."
The feeling is mutual. To a man, the Bears have talked about the significance of playing — and beating — Miami. As Best put it, "It's still Miami."
"This has always been one of my dreams, to play against Miami," Cal nose tackle Derrick Hill said. "Knowing you were able to beat the University of Miami is something a lot of people aren't able to say. It would help us as far as momentum and recruiting as well. It would be a huge thing for us to get this win."
The game could have a significant impact on Cal's program. It would give the Bears a nine-win season and likely put them in the final national rankings. That could have a positive effect on recruiting. It also would give Cal's returning players a boost heading into the offseason.
"Any time you finish the season on a losing note, it makes it harder for recruiting," Hill said. "It also makes it harder for the team to rebound. Winning just makes it so much easier to start the next season."
To win, the Bears will have to continue to stifle the run as they have done all season. The Hurricanes feature a dynamic running back duo in Graig Cooper and Javarris James, who have combined for 1,061 yards and eight touchdowns. Hill called Cooper "one of the greatest running backs we've seen the whole season."
On the other side of the ball, Cal has high hopes for Best, who rushed for 511 yards during the Bears' final two games and is going against a run defense ranked 70th in the country (146.4 ypg).
"Any time you get a chance to get a win over Miami, it's always a good thing," Williams said. "Everyone on our team is taking it very seriously. It's definitely a big game."