BERKELEY -- Cal came out of the Tennessee game with a much better feeling this year.
Last year, a season-opening thumping by Tennessee lingered throughout the Golden Bears' 10-win season.
No. 12 Cal emerged with a different feeling after a convincing 45-31 victory over the 15th-ranked Volunteers on Saturday night in Memorial Stadium.
"It was a big one, no question about it," coach Jeff Tedford said. "We've been carrying this with us for a year."
With 11 games remaining, beginning with a trip to Colorado State this week, the Golden Bears can't afford to look too far ahead. But a convincing victory in the opening weekend's only matchup of ranked teams has stamped Cal as a legitimate national title contender.
Likewise, DeSean Jackson's electrifying 77-yard punt return for a touchdown will likely raise his profile in the Heisman Trophy race. The junior from Los Angeles also caught four passes for 45 yards and ran once for 21 yards.
On the punt return, Jackson appeared to be hemmed in before reversing field and picking up a convoy of blockers.
"Our guys know, with DeSean, you always need to keep playing because you never know where he's going to go," Tedford said.
The bigger question: Where is Cal going? The Bears have as much control over their destiny as any other contender because they play top-ranked USC on Nov. 10. That game is in Memorial Stadium, where the Bears have won two of the last four meetings against the Trojans.
But before the Bears could think about moving forward this year, they had to clear the hurdle that tripped them up in 2006. And in Tedford's view, the only way to do that was to be tougher than Tennessee.
The Bears responded on the game's first series. Cal linebacker Zack Follett leveled Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge from behind, forcing a fumble that Worrell Williams picked up and returned 44 yards for the opening score.
The Bears also kept Tennessee off the board on a first-and-goal from the Cal 3 in the third quarter. Still, the defense had some holes. Tennessee's Erik Ainge passed for 271 yards and three touchdowns and the Bears seemed content to trade scores at times.
Nate Longshore displayed plenty of poise in completing 19-of-28 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns.
Cal's running game didn't miss a beat despite losing Marshawn Lynch, the Pac-10's rushing leader a year ago. The Golden Bears rushed for 230 yards, led by Justin Forsett, who gained 156 and scored a touchdown.
"There's never been any concern about dropping off at the tailback spot with Justin in there," Tedford said. "He's a great player."
The Bears also unveiled speedy freshman Jahvid Best, whose 34-yard run in the second quarter set up a touchdown.
Cal's overall speed was evident on a series of big plays. Three different runners -- Forsett, Best and Jackson -- had gains of at least 20 yards. And three different receivers -- Forsett, Jackson and Cameron Morrah -- had receptions of at least 23 yards.
"We have very, very good team speed, there's no question," Tedford said.