KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The chants of "overrated" finally began with 2:48 remaining in the third quarter.
Consider it a case of southern hospitality. The refrain could have started about an hour earlier.
California's hopes for a national title disintegrated amid a sea of orange Saturday at Neyland Stadium. No. 23 Tennessee scored the game's first 35 points before coasting to a 35-18 triumph over the ninth-ranked Golden Bears.
"It's very humbling when you come out and get kind of beat pretty soundly like this," said California quarterback Joe Ayoob, who came off the bench and led three scoring drives after the game was already out of hand. "You take a step back and look at things. We've got to start from square one again."
The one-sided loss represented a stunning start to one of the most highly anticipated football seasons in school history.
California entered the game with its highest preseason ranking since 1952.
The offense featured one of the game's most dynamic runners (Marshawn Lynch) in the backfield and two of the game's brightest offensive minds (head coach Jeff Tedford and new offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar) on the sideline.
"Their mind-set was good coming into the game," California coach Jeff Tedford said. "I don't think that was it. I didn't get the impression during our preparation that anybody was taking anything lightly or anything like that."
"We got beat by a better football team that executed better than we did today."
QB QUANDARY: As dynamic as the Bears' offense looked on paper, their quarterback situation was uncertain enough that Tedford didn't name Nate Longshore the starter until Tuesday. Longshore hadn't played since breaking his leg in last year's season opener.
The rust was evident Saturday. After firing a 31-yard completion to Robert Jordan with his first pass, Longshore was 10-of-19 for 54 yards with an interception the rest of the night.
"I feel on some plays I had happy feet, and I could have calmed down back there," said Longshore, who was under pressure much of the night. "It's the first game and you've got to deal with it."
Ayoob, the Bears' starting quarterback for most of last season, replaced Longshore in the third quarter and went 9-of-22 for 187 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Both quarterbacks would have fared even better if the Bears' receivers hadn't dropped several passes.
"This is not by any means on Nate's shoulders," Tedford said.
Was Longshore good enough to keep his starting job next weekend?
"We'll go back and evaluate," Tedford said.
NO "D" IN BEARS: As bad as California's offense looked at times, the defense fared even worse.
A Tennessee team that ranked 101st in the nation in scoring offense last year racked up 35 points in the first 2½ quarters Saturday. In the opening minute of the second half, Vols junior quarterback Erik Ainge already had thrown for a career-high 237 yards.
California made things easier for the Vols by committing critical errors that led to touchdowns.
With the Bears trailing 7-0 late in the second quarter, redshirt freshman cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson broke in front of Vols wide receiver Robert Meachem and tried to make an interception. The plan backfired when Meachem caught the pass at the California 38 and sprinted into the end zone.
Thompson also missed a tackle in the third quarter that allowed Meachem to turn a 5-yard completion into an 80-yard touchdown. Thompson, who made his college debut while wearing a cast on his left hand, entered the starting lineup two weeks ago when Tim Mixon tore a ligament in his right knee.
"It's a learning experience for him," Tedford said. "We're going to stay behind him. He's a great player."
UT DOMINANT: Tennessee outran and outhit California so thoroughly that the Bears couldn't capitalize on their strengths.
The Vols grabbed such a huge lead that Lynch was never a major factor.
Falling behind 35-0 also limited the options of Dunbar, whose Northwestern offenses averaged 500 yards per game last year.
OPPORTUNISTIC ORANGE: Thompson wasn't the only Cal player to allow a big play. Tennessee's Montario Hardesty scored on a 43-yard run in the third quarter after linebacker Zack Follett failed to bring him down about 5 yards downfield.
"We didn't tackle well," Tedford said, "which is unusual for us."
JUST ONE GAME: Although this loss devastated the Bears' hopes of emerging as a dark-horse contender for the national title, it didn't appear to cause the type of significant emotional damage that can cause a team with 12-0 aspirations to end up 7-5.
The players who spoke to the media all believed they wouldn't have much trouble bouncing back from this performance.
"We'll go back to the drawing board next week," Lynch said, "and come out with a better game."
The players echoed the sentiments Tedford had expressed a few minutes earlier.
"I'm not concerned it's going to carry over," Tedford said. "The kids aren't going to give up or stop believing who they are."
THE STREAK GOES ON: Tennessee ranked second in the nation in rushing defense last year while not allowing any player to reach the 100-yard mark.
Even though senior defensive tackle Justin Harrell is the only returning starter on the front seven, the Vols managed to continue the streak against Lynch. The Rivals.com preseason All-American gained 72 yards on 12 carries.
"Everyone was trying to get to the ball and gang tackle," Harrell said.
"We knew we wanted to dominate the line of scrimmage, get to the running backs as best as we could and show (California) this isn't an easy place to come in and get a 'W'."
Tedford said that Lynch hurt his lower leg during the game, but Lynch said his leg wasn't bothering him.
STEVENS HURT: The bad news started early for Cal.
Starting tight end Craig Stevens was hurt on the opening kickoff and never returned to the game. Tedford said afterward that he believed the junior had suffered a concussion.
"He was knocked out," Tedford said. "For Craig Stevens to be like that, there's something wrong, because that guy's the toughest guy on our team.
He must have taken a shot right on his chin."
TOP 10 JINX ENDS: The Vols ended their six-game home losing streak against top 10 teams. Tennessee hadn't beaten a top 10 team at Neyland Stadium since a 37-20 victory over Georgia in 1999.
Tennessee had scored 14 points or less in its last five home games against top 10 programs.
ETC: The victory was a belated birthday present for Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who turned 56 on Friday. … Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo recorded his first career sack in the second quarter. Two plays later, he sacked Longshore again. … Tennessee linebacker Ryan Karl delivered a team-high nine tackles in his first career start. California free safety Thomas DeCoud led all players with 13 tackles. … Tennessee wore striped pants for the first time since a 1996 Citrus Bowl victory over Ohio State.
For more coverage of the Tennessee Volunteers, check out VolQuest.com and for more coverage of the California Golden Bears, check out BearTerritory.net.