Those California fans who hang out at the Bear's Lair, Manny's Tap Room and all the other places around Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley may be unsure about what they've seen lately.
Are the Golden Bears actually developing into a team that could be a factor in the Pac-10 race? Or is that just a hallucination?
Sometimes at Berkeley, it's hard to tell the difference.
Just last season, Cal was hailed as a potential Pac-10 champion. The Golden Bears then scored six points in back-to-back blowout losses to Oregon and USC and limped to an 8-5 finish. In '07, the Bears were ranked second in the nation but fell to Oregon State 31-28 to start a skid in which they lost six of their next seven.
Even this season, the Bears got off to a great start, blasting their first two opponents by a combined 104-10. But then, Nevada "pistol"-whipped the Bears for 316 rushing yards in a 52-31 beatdown.
But Cal nearly upset Arizona in Tucson the next week, then followed with a 35-7 blitzing of UCLA, which managed just 26 rushing yards despite running the same "pistol" formation that was so effective for Nevada.
"No doubt about it, the experience at Nevada made us focus on some different things," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "I think our players were used to the discipline needed [against the scheme]. You can't be overaggressive against it. You have to just do your job."
Is that an indication that Cal now has the ability to make adjustments and fix its problems, something it's had difficulty doing in the past?
"We pride ourselves on being a strong team mentally," said Mike Mohamed, an All-Pac 10 linebacker who missed the game against Nevada because of a turf toe injury. "We did what it took to bounce back from the blowout. The next two weeks we kind of showed that as a defense. We just tried to turn it around and prove to people that wasn't who we are."
There are other reasons for the Bears to be optimistic down the stretch, too.
Under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who came from the NFL, the Bears' defense has held four of five opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. The Bears were woeful in pass coverage last season, but they are sixth in the country in pass defense and have more interceptions than touchdown passes allowed this season.
Though senior quarterback Kevin Riley typically has been inconsistent, the Bears have scored at least 31 points in four games. Running back Shane Vereen ranks among the nation's rushing leaders, the line is improved and receivers Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen have big-play ability.
Still, Cal fans may have seen too many previous mirages to believe the Bears can legitimately challenge Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and Arizona for the conference title.
"Anytime you lose, you see some fans drop off, and when you win, some of them come right back," Mohamed said. "I don't blame them. They have high expectations for us. Anytime we lose, I know it's disappointing for them.
"It's disappointing for us, too. We're the ones working so hard. But the Pac-10 is still wide open. Everybody is beating everybody every week. We just need to stay focused."
The Bears are focused on Saturday's road trip to face USC, which has endured consecutive losses to Washington and Stanford on last-play field goals.
USC still has a talented roster, though. Plus, Cal has not won on the road this season, has lost six in a row to USC and hasn't won in the LA Coliseum since 2000.
"We definitely need to get a win and keep our momentum going after last week's showing," Mohamed said. "USC is a great team. The games they've lost have come in the final seconds. They're a factor in every game. We'll have our hands full.
"But if we do beat them, it goes to show we can hang with anybody."
If they don't, Cal fans will know they were just hallucinating again.
Best matchup: USC's rush offense vs. California's rush defense. Although Cal was shredded by Nevada's "pistol" offense, the Bears still are ranked 21st in the nation in rush defense, allowing 106 yards per game. Last week, the Bears limited UCLA, which also runs the "pistol," to 26 rushing yards. A key was the play of LB Mike Mohamed, who missed the Nevada game with a foot injury. The Bears need Mohamed and everyone else in top form to slow down USC's rushing offense (213.3 ypg, 21st in the nation). The Trojans have rushed for more than 200 yards in three of their four victories and had almost 300 in a last-play loss to Stanford. Allen Bradford has rushed for 533 yards and Marc Tyler has 359.
Player on the spot: Oregon State WR Markus Wheaton. Wheaton, a sophomore, likely will take over the role as the Beavers' big-play threat at receiver now that James Rodgers has been lost for the season with an injury. Wheaton had only two catches in the first three games, but he has had 11 in the past two. He played a key role in last week's 29-27 victory over Arizona with seven catches for 113 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown. The Beavers need similar production the rest of the way, beginning Saturday against Washington.
Numbers game: Arizona QB Nick Foles is completing 74.9 percent of his passing attempts. If he maintains that accuracy he'll easily break the Pac-10 record. Cal's Rich Campbell set the standard by completing 70.7 percent in 1980. On Saturday, Foles faces Washington State, which has allowed opponents to complete 65.9 percent. Foles had a career-high 440 passing yards in last week's loss to Oregon State, and Wildcats WR Juron Criner had a career-best 179 receiving yards.
What they're saying
"I look at the overall program, and if we're making strides and progressing, that will have an impact on any decision I make." -- Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, on whether Cougars coach Paul Wulff will be retained after this season
"You're talking about a pure speed rusher that gets up the field and is just tenacious. For his first start, he played pretty darn well." -- Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, on freshman DE Junior Onyeali, who had 1.5 tackles for loss and boosted the Sun Devils' pass rush against Washington
"It's too shallow to say it's part of football. He's the heart and soul of the team." -- Oregon State coach Mike Riley, on losing WR James Rodgers for the rest of the season
Etc.: Arizona has averaged 10 penalties per game over the past three games. ... Arizona State QB Steven Threet has thrown for at least 200 yards in every game. ... The Sun Devils snapped a five-game losing streak on the road with last week's victory at Washington. ... Cal C Chris Guarnero missed last week's game against UCLA with a sprained ankle, but he has returned to practice. ... Oregon RB LaMichael James extended his streak of consecutive 100-yard regular-season rushing performances to 12. ... Oregon State has nine sacks in its past three games. ... The Beavers have lost just one turnover this season -- the best in the nation. That one came on a Ryan Katz interception last week. He's forgiven because Katz also passed for 393 yards and two touchdowns in that win over Arizona. ... Not only did Stanford QB Andrew Luck complete 20 of 24 passes in a win over USC, but coach Jim Harbaugh pointed out one incompletion purposely was thrown away and another was dropped. He said a third could have been pass interference. ... UCLA WR Josh Smith and FB/TE Morrell Presley have been suspended from playing in the Oct. 21 game against Oregon for violating team rules. Smith is the Bruins' best kick returner. There are rumors as many as four more players could be suspended. ... After an off week, UCLA will enter the toughest stretch of its schedule, with three consecutive games against ranked opponents: No. 2 Oregon, No. 17 Arizona and No. 24 Oregon State. ... USC LB Malcolm Smith has a sprained knee and is unsure if he'll be able to play against Cal. DE Nick Perry has a sprained ankle but will play. DE Wes Horton, OT Tyron Smith, TB Dillon Baxter and LB Shane Horton missed practice time this week with various injuries. ... Washington QB Jake Locker was bothered by a leg bruise and chest cold earlier this week. WR Devin Aguilar is hobbled with a sore hip flexor. ... Washington State is averaging 22.3 points per game in Pac-10 play. Last season, the Cougars averaged just 8.9 points in conference games. … Washington State freshmen Jamal Atofau and Andre Barrington were arrested after Pullman police found 38 marijuana plants growing in a house they shared with two others. ... Arizona starting CB Trevin Wade is hobbled by a deep thigh bruise and his status is uncertain. ... Stanford has committed six turnovers in its past two games. ... USC LB Chris Galippo, who usually plays in the middle, has been getting work on the weakside. ... UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said he's considering making a change at quarterback. Starter Kevin Prince has thrown for 100 yards just once this season. ... Cal RB Shane Vereen has rushed for 100 yards in each of the past three games. ... Oregon has allowed just 13 points in the second half and none in the fourth quarter. ... USC sophomore QB Matt Barkley had career-bests of 28 completions and 390 passing yards in last week's loss to Stanford. ... Dropped passes have been a problem for Washington. WR Jermaine Kearse has seven of them. ... The Pac-10, which will add Utah and Colorado and split into two divisions next season, apparently is nearing a decision on its new alignment. Speculation is that the North Division will have Cal, Stanford and the Washington and Oregon schools. The South will have UCLA, USC, the Arizona schools and the new members.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.