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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 35: California

Yet again, Cal failed to live up to expectations. And you wonder why this bear is so upset.

Cal has opened four of the last five seasons ranked in The Associated Press Top 25. And that’s not a good thing. This program has fallen short of its preseason expectations in each of these four seasons: 12th to start the season in 2009, it finished unranked; 12th in 2007 to unranked; ninth in 2006 to 14th; 19th in 2005 to 25th. So, to sum up: this program has opened two of the last three seasons ranked No. 12 in the country, only to end each season unranked. I might be wrong, but this is starting to feel like a trend. Yes, this has certainly become a trend.

Conference
Pac-10

Location
Berkeley, Calif.

Nickname
Golden Bears

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 9

2009 record
(8-5, 5-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 35

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    U.C. Davis
  • Sept. 11
    Colorado
  • Sept. 17
    at Nevada
  • Sept. 25
    at Arizona
  • Oct. 9
    U.C.L.A.
  • Oct. 16
    at U.S.C.
  • Oct. 23
    Arizona St.
  • Oct. 30
    at Oregon St.
  • Nov. 6
    at Washington St.
  • Nov. 13
    Oregon
  • Nov. 20
    Stanford
  • Nov. 27
    Washington

Last year’s prediction

I’ve got Cal right alongside Oregon in the Pac-10: good, potentially great, but still a shade below U.S.C. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; everyone is trying to catch up with the Trojans, and the Bears are quite firmly ensconced as a top 15 team in the country. No, the Golden Bears may not have the talent to match up with the Trojans, and Cal must rebuild its linebacker corps, but this group should be just as strong as it was a season ago, if not better. So I think very highly of this team. However, as flawed as this logic may be, I can’t pick Cal to win the Pac-10 until the team shows it can beat U.S.C.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Through three weeks, at least, all went according to plan. The Bears opened the year 3-0, with a win over Eastern Washington sandwiched by victories over Maryland — recompense for an upset the year prior — and at Minnesota. The win over the Golden Gophers, which came by 14 points, was the narrowest victory of the bunch. Then came back-to-back losses to U.S.C. and Oregon, both one-sided. Followed by another three-game winning streak. On Nov. 1, Cal was 6-2, 3-2 in the Pac-10, and — though a long shot — still a Rose Bowl contender. Let the month of November, as well as Cal’s bowl trip, stand as indicative of the season as a whole: a home loss, Cal’s second in three tries in Berkeley during Pac-10 play; followed by two wins over teams ranked in the Top 25; followed by a shocking blowout defeat to a sub-.500 team; and wrapped up by a 10-point bowl loss.

High point It seemed that Cal had worked through some early season issues during a streak of five wins in six games from Oct. 17 – Nov. 21. This period concluded with very impressive wins over Arizona and Stanford – each ranked No. 17 at the time – in successive weeks. Cal has now won two straight in the Big Game and seven of eight.

Low point What’s more embarrassing? Losses to Oregon and U.S.C. on back-to-back weeks by the combined score of 72-6 or a 32-point loss to Washington to end the season? Here’s my take: Washington was worse, as Cal entered the game with those Arizona and Stanford victories fresh in mind.

Tidbit Never before has Cal been so good, so long. The Bears are in the midst of eight consecutive seasons — the Jeff Tedford era, mind you — with at least seven wins, a program first. The next-longest streak was six seasons, achieved under Pappy Waldorf from 1947-52. It is worth noting, however, that Cal went five straight seasons — from 1920-24 — without suffering a single loss; that stretch, which included a trio of national championships, must be considered the finest period in program history.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader katster, whose correct answer to a quiz in the Duke preview earned her the opportunity to write a 100-word preview of her favorite team. Her team? Cal. Take it away, katster:

Cal fans are cautiously optimistic about next season. RB Shane Vereen has shown that he’s capable of replacing Jahvid Best. QB Kevin Riley is a senior. There are four returning starters on OL. WR Marvin Jones is someone to watch. Our best defender is Big Game hero LB Mike Mohammed. DE Cameron Jordan should wreak havoc as the star of a deep DL. The secondary is shaky, but watch out for S Sean Cattouse. Special teams should (hopefully) be less of an adventure. Given a favorable schedule and low hype, it could be a good year in Berkeley.

Former players in the N.F.L.

40 LB Lorenzo Alexander (Washington), DT Tyson Alualu (Jacksonville), RB J.J. Arrington (Denver), CB Nnamdi Asomugha (Oakland), LB Tully Banta-Cain (New England), RB Jahvid Best (Detroit), LS David Binn (San Diego), LB Desmond Bishop (Green Bay), LB Devin Bishop (Denver), QB Kyle Boller (Oakland), LB Andre Carter (Washington), OG Brian Del La Puente (San Francisco), S Thomas DeCoud (Atlanta), LB Zack Follett (Detroit), RB Justin Forsett (Seattle), LB Scott Fujita (Cleveland), OG Mike Gibson (Seattle), S Matt Giordano (Atlanta), TE Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta), P Nick Harris (Detroit), WR Lavelle Hawkins (Tennessee), CB Dante Hughes (San Diego), WR DeSean Jackson (Philadelphia), S Brett Johnson (Philadelphia), LS L.P. LaDouceur (Dallas), K Ryan Longwell (Minnesota), RB Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo), C Alex Mack (Cleveland), DT Brandon Mebane (Seattle), TE Cameron Morrah (Seattle), OT Ryan O’Callaghan (Kansas City), TE Craig Stevens (Tennessee), FB Byron Storer (Tampa Bay), LS Nick Sundberg (Washington), FB Will Ta’ufo’ou (Chicago), OT Mike Tepper (Dallas), CB Syd’Quan Thompson (Denver), WR Verran Tucker (Dallas), OT Langston Walker (Oakland).

Arbitrary top five list

Musical Cal alumni
1. Phil Lesh.
2. Les Claypool.
3. Stewart Copeland.
4. Adam Duritz.
5. Susanna Hoffs.

Coaching

Jeff Tedford (Fresno State ’83), 67-35 over eight seasons as coach. His winning percentage (65.7) is the third best in school history, trailing only Andy Smith (79.9 from 1916-25) and Pappy Waldorf (67.0 from 1947-56). Tedford turned Cal into a winner so quickly (7-5 his first season) that many have overlooked the situation he inherited. The program went 16-39 in the five seasons before his arrival — the forgettable Tom Holmoe era — bottoming out at 1-10 in 2001. The Bears have experienced nearly unprecedented success under the former Oregon offensive coordinator, finishing in the Top 25 four of the last six seasons. How does he do it? With a dynamic offense, for starters, one typically paced by his latest project under center. Tedford has tutored college quarterback stars like Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers; each of the six were selected in the first round of the N.F.L. draft. System quarterbacks, for the most part? Perhaps – despite the fact that Dilfer is a Super Bowl champ and that Rodgers certainly has the goods – if anything, their lack of pro success speaks even more highly of Tedford’s coaching acumen. Sometimes, however, his Golden Bears ride the running game, not their quarterback, illustrating Teford’s flexibility and penchant for adapting to his personnel – the mark of a top offensive mind. Prior to serving as the offensive coordinator under Mike Bellotti at Oregon, Tedford coached six years at his alma mater (1992-1997), the first year as quarterbacks coach and the final five as offensive coordinator. He has yet to suffer a losing season at Cal, twice winning conference coach of the year honors (2002, 2004) and twice winning 10 games (2004, 2006). In 2006, the Bears were co-Pac-10 champions with Southern California. Cal is 5-2 in bowl games under Tedford, making him the only head coach in the history of the program with more than two bowl victories. And, most importantly, Tedford is 7-1 in the Big Game; Cal lost seven straight to Stanford prior to his arrival. You cannot overestimate what that means to the Cal fan base.

Players to watch

Cal has had a parade of 1,000-yard backs under Tedford, beginning with J.J. Arrington and continuing through Jahvid Best, the would-be senior who opted to forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the N.F.L. draft. Well, get your trombones ready — nice Big Game reference — as the parade will continue with junior Shane Vereen, who stepped into Best’s shoes nicely last fall when the starter was lost for the season with a concussion. Inserted into the starting for the Nov. 14 game against Arizona, Vereen responded with three 100-yard games in four tries, with his worst performance a 92-yard effort in Cal’s loss to Washington.

Without question, Vereen has the ability to approach the 1,500-yard mark as a junior; he rushed for 952 yards last fall despite, as noted, not starting until the final month. Sophomore Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, a 211-yard rusher last fall, is his likely reserve. Keep an eye on Vareen — and don’t blink, or he’s gone.

The offensive line returns four starters, with the group reshuffling a bit in an attempt to replace left tackle Mike Tepper, a first-team all-conference selection. It looks as if Matt Summers-Gavin, an eight-game starter at guard, will move outside for his sophomore season. That move would allow junior Mitchell Schwartz to remain at right tackle, where he’s started all 26 games over his first two seasons. The line will remain static at center and right guard, where the Bears return senior Chris Guarnero and junior Justin Cheadle, respectively. Summers-Gavin’s move opens up a spot at left guard, a hole Cal plans to fill with either Brian Schwenke or Dominic Galas, both sophomores; Schwenke is the more experienced of the pair.

Cal must replace Verran Tucker, whose 15.6 yards per catch average tied for the team lead, but return most of its production at wide receiver. The team’s most dangerous receiving option, however, might be a tight end: despite missing a pair of starts due to injury, junior Anthony Miller made 26 receptions for 357 en route to earning first-team all-conference accolades. The Bears do return experience at receiver, beginning with junior Marvin Jones, the team leader in receptions (43), receiving yards (651) and touchdowns (6) last season.

Senior Jeremy Ross — the other receiver to average 15.6 yards per reception — is a returning starter, but he’ll be pushed for playing time by junior Alex Lagemann, who had a very strong second half to 2009. Of course, any discussion of the Cal receiver corps must include incoming freshman Keenan Allen, whose high school numbers — high school numbers, of course — are positively mind-boggling. He’ll earn every opportunity, and then some, to break into the mix.

With all of that said, this offense’s production will come down to quarterback Kevin Riley — again. Riley has continued to improve, putting together competent numbers last fall as a 13-game starter, but has yet to turn a corner. Now’s the time, of course. Make no mistake: while Tedford has paid lip service to a quarterback competition, the job is Riley’s; his to lose, I might add. A year ago, Riley threw for 2,850 yards — the fourth-best single-season performance in school history — while tossing 18 touchdowns against 8 interceptions. While he might not live up to the standard set by Aaron Rodgers, Riley is competent enough to lift Cal into the Top 25, as well as a potential run for the Rose Bowl. He’s not an all-American, not a guy who will single-handedly carry the Bears, but with some help — help he’ll have in the running game — Riley is a solid college quarterback. He’s also Cal’s best option.

Despite suffering some losses, the Cal defense has its fair share of stars. One is senior inside linebacker Mike Mohamed. He enters 2010 as a contender for national honors, and for good reason: Mohamed is coming off a 112-tackle (8 for loss), 3-interception junior campaign, with the former total pacing the team by more than 40 stops. With prototypical size, a quick first step and a nose for the football, it’s clear to see why Mohamed is one of the top linebackers in the country.

Chris Martin’s perplexing decision to transfer damages Cal’s depth at linebacker, even if the highly-touted true freshman was not a clear-cut starter in his debut season. Two spots at linebacker are spoken for: junior D.J. Holt, a part-time starter last fall, will line up alongside Mohamed on the inside; while fellow junior Mychal Kendricks will remain on the outside. Kendricks was Cal’s second-leading tackler last with 71 (8 for loss), a total augmented by his lone sack and interception. Look for some competition on the opposite side, where both Keith Browner and Jarred Price, the latter a former JUCO transfer, have staked claims to the starting role.

Looking for another all-American candidate on this defense? Look no further than senior end Cameron Jordan, a talented, all-conference performer tasked with replacing some of Tyson Alualu’s lost production. Jordan is capable of doing so: he’s coming off back-to-back honorable mention all-conference seasons, combining to post 95 tackles and 10 sacks over that time. Jordan’s size, which makes him a perfect 3-4 end, also allows him to move inside on passing downs. A well-rounded lineman, Jordan — with a little bit of work — could make some serious noise in his final season.

The Bears return experience on the nose, most notably with senior Derrick Hill, an 18-game starter over his career. Eight of those starts came last fall, with Hill making 18 tackles (4.5 for loss) and a pair of sacks. When Hill wasn’t starting, Cal turned to sophomores Kendrick Payne and Aaron Tipoti. That pair, each of whom played well as rookies, will again be valuable members of the line rotation. Junior Trevor Guyton is Alualu’s likely replacement, though youngsters like Keni Kaufusi, Gabe King and Deandre Coleman will certainly see time.

Position battles to watch

Secondary Much has been lost: cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson, a two-time first-team all-conference selection, and safeties Brett Johnson and Marcus Ezeff. This trio started a combined 68 games over the last three seasons, with Thompson concluding his career with a program-record 52 career starts. Nevertheless, contrary to what those numbers might suggest, the Bears do return experience in the secondary. Take a look at safety, for instance. Junior Sean Cattouse broke into the starting lineup halfway into last season, starting five games in Ezeff’s stead and the bowl loss in place of Johnson. Cattouse is receiving plenty of preseason love, and for good reason: he was very productive when called upon last season, making 37 tackles (2 for loss) and an interception in part-time starting duty. Senior Chris Conte will start alongside Cattouse. He was an immediate hit in 2007, his freshman season, but has seen diminished playing time over the last two seasons. The Bears can certainly do worse in replacing its pair of departed safeties. The story at cornerback is a bit more worrisome. Again, Cal does return a handful of players with starting experience. One is senior Darian Hagan, a 13-game starter in 2008 whose grasp on the starting role slipped away four games into last season. He was replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Josh Hill, who was then replaced by senior Bryant Nnabuife. Three cornerbacks, each of whom made at least four starts last season; one, Hagan, brings even more experience into his final season. Even if Hagan and Nnabuife start the season in the starting lineup, look for Hill to factor heavily into the mix. Yes, Cal lost quite a bit in the secondary. What this team returns, however, is comforting.

Game(s) to watch

Four road games in a six-week span, all in conference play. Only one, Washington State, can be considered a clear victory for the Bears. The other three, particularly one at Arizona, will go far towards dictating the final Pac-10 standings. Likewise with the final three games of the season, all at home. In fact, as I’ve said multiple times throughout the summer, the Pac-10 will be so tight that every game on Cal’s conference schedule is vital.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s no question that Cal has Top 25 potential. The fact that the program has recently performed better when coming in under the radar — 2004 and 2008, most notably — nearly has me believing that this year’s team deserves a higher ranking; it’s safe to say that the Bears play better as the underdog, obviously. So why here, and not, say, somewhere between Nos. 20 and 25? While I do think the Bears have the ability to take the conference, it’s safe to say this team is less polished than the top pair, U.S.C. and Oregon. It begins at quarterback, where we’re all waiting for Kevin Riley to take that step forward. If it’s going to happen, of course, it will be in his senior season. He’ll have weapons to work with, both in the backfield and in the passing game, and the offense — barring injury, or an unexpected step back — has the potential to resemble the high-scoring unit of 2008. The big question, as was the case last season, is the defense. There are a few players to replace at each level, particularly in the secondary. The good news is that Cal has players ready to step up; along the line, for instance, Cameron Jordan is poised for a big season. Until it shows improvement, however — and we might not be able to tell until the heart of Pac-10 play — the defense remains a concern. Altogether, Cal is very good team, one easily capable of landing a spot in the Top 25. Much, if not all, depends on how the Bears fare during their tough stretch of Pac-10 road games from late September through early November.

Dream season Cal comes in under the radar, upsetting the top three teams in the conference en route to its first outright Pac-10 title since 1958.

Nightmare season For the first time under Tedford, the Bears fail to win at least seven games. The team returns to bowl play, but significant questions are raised about the future of the program.

In case you were wondering

Where do Cal fans congregate? There are plenty of options when it comes to message board chatter, beginning with Bear Insider and continuing with Bear Territory and Cal Sports Digest. The Cal fan base also touts several good blogs, such as California Golden BlogsExcuse Me For My VoiceBear Talk and Bears With Fangs.

Up Next

Who is No. 34? Our next university’s proud military history includes sending nearly 15,000 soldiers to World War I, the most of any institution of higher learning in the country, and nearly another 15,000 officers to World War II, again the most in the country.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. M Meyer says:

    Navy? Or is it a trick question?

  2. M Meyer says:

    On second thought… Navy has a pretty low enrollment. I’m going with Texas A&M.

  3. JohnnyB says:

    Texas A&M is #34.

  4. katster says:

    Yeah, I think next is A&M too.

    Pretty good preview of the Bears, Paul. The gang over at CGB did a bit over the summer asking everybody what they thought win percentages over the schedule would be, and the consensus put us at eight wins. I’d be pretty happy with that. (Of course, my undergraduate tenure was under Holmoe — I’m ecstatic with what Tedford’s done.)

    Of course, if the best case works out, it’d be awesome…

    -kat

  5. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska is up next.

  6. Jake Smith says:

    Watch out. You are under-rating Cal. Here will be the final standings:

    • 1t. California* 10-2 (7-2) Rose Bowl
    • 1t. Oregon 10-2 (7-2) Fiesta Bowl
    • 1t. Stanford 10-2 (7-2) Alamo Bowl
    • 4. Washington 7-5 (6-3) Holiday Bowl
    • 5. Arizona 7-5 (5-4) Sun Bowl
    • 6t. UCLA 6-6 (4-5) Las Vegas Bowl
    • 6t. Oregon State 5-7 (4-5)
    • 8. USC 7-6 (3-6)
    • 9t. Washington State 3-9 (1-8)
    • 9t. Arizona State 3-9 (1-8)

  7. Zaboo says:

    This is actually pretty high for Cal…

    And if Wazzou wins a Pac-10 game next year, it will only be because they played a warm-weather school in a raging blizzard. That’s almost as ridiculous as saying a Mike Riley coached team won’t reach bowl eligibility…

  8. Jake Smith says:

    The same Cal that has always won at least 7 games under Tedford and now returns the best and most experienced QB in the Pac-10 (Locker has more experience, but not good experience). And they won 8 games last season. Why would a 2 game improvement be so tough when they have 5 home Pac-10 games and one of the 4 road games is at WSU? The Pac-10 always comes down to Quarterbacks, and this year it is Riley.

    And Wazzou was really hurt by having twice the missed games of any other team due to injuries and having a true freshman start at Quarterback last year after he missed fall camp. That is not a huge leap, and it is certainly not impossible.

    And Mike Riley has missed a bowl game in 3 of his 9 years at Oregon State and has never finished in the top 15. He is breaking in a new QB at TCU and Boise State and visits Arizona and Washington early, while they always start slow.

  9. OskiGoDumb says:

    Two more reasons for Cal fans to hope: new DC Clancy Pendergast and new ST coach Jeff Genyk. Cal’s bend-but-don’t-break D was never great under Gregory but it really started sucking the last 3 seasons and Special Teams and the kicking game have been a huge, HUGE liability for years. Cal basically concedes the 40 on kick offs and can’t hit a FG outside of 30 with any consistency. The next time they successfully run a a fake punt or recognize one being run against them will be the first. The secondary, pass rush and ST can’t get much worse and hopefully these guys might make them much better.

    btw, Shane’s last name is spelled Vereen.

    Go Bears!

    Paul: That’s an inexcusable mistake on Vereen. My apologies. Next you’ll tell me it’s Ben Vereen, not Ben Vareen. Oh, wait.

  10. [...] the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 35, is California. You can find a larger California preview [...]

  11. george howley says:

    I vaguely remember the Aggies have a history with numbers of studentds sent off to World War1. Texas A&M was primarily a military school at one point. Things changed and the first thing you know they permitted women to enroll.

  12. Rookierookie says:

    “The same Cal that has always won at least 7 games under Tedford and now returns the best and most experienced QB in the Pac-10 (Locker has more experience, but not good experience). And they won 8 games last season. ”

    You know, that EXACTLY describes Cal of 2009.

  13. James null says:

    Go Beers! OOps, sorry, meant Bears. My apologies.

  14. dc4azcats says:

    Was Kevin Riley sick or something last week? How else was he not invited to join the 4 best QB’s in the conference on the East coast swing? Seriously.

    Riley completed all of 54.7% LY which would be a big reason why he wasn’t invited to NY TY with the other QB’s. Memo to Jake Smith – you need to do better than 54.7% of your passes if you want to be considered the best in the conference.

    I understand the home schedule but have you bothered to look at the road schedule? Cal plays at Arizona, at SC and at ntOSU.

    Cal has lost 2 straight at Arizona and you could argue that it was with better teams than what they bring to Tucson TY. In ’06 they were ranked 8th and in ’08 25th. Cal hasn’t won at SC in forever and has lost 2 straight to the Beavs. OSU has a bye the week before Cal comes to town – that can’t be good for Cal.

    Your defense gave up more passing yards per game than anybody in the conf – including wazzu. Over 260 yards a game through the air. The good news is you return 6 starters on D which is also the bad news. You lost your best cover corner and both safeties off a team that cover anybody.

    Cal was a good team on the road LY but that’s a little misleading since they beat the 8th and 9th ranked teams in the conf in ucla and assu. With a similar conference road schedule to TY in ’08 – Cal won 1 road trip that year – at Wazzu. Once again – Wazzu will be the only road win that Cal gets TY.

  15. joe bear says:

    Do you even know anything about Pac football?

    after seeing your rankings I’m beginning to wonder

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