Cal’s descent in recent years from national power to conference also-ran has brought increasing pressure on Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who was lauded when he made the Golden Bears a Rose Bowl contender but is being criticized because he couldn’t maintain that status.
Since tying USC for the 2006 conference title, Cal has not finished better than fourth in the conference, and having losing conference records the past two seasons does not sit well with fans.
A losing season, which is possible with the difficult nonconference schedule that includes Nevada and Ohio State, will bring calls for Tedford’s dismissal, although his job is not in jeopardy unless the team completely flounders.
Questions at safety and inside linebacker will make it difficult for the Golden Bears to match the defensive success of last season, although even last season the Cal defense was inconsistent, coming up with outstanding games one week and poor games the next.
But the key is the play of QB Zach Maynard. Much of the recent decline of Cal football correlates with poor play by its quarterback, which comes as a surprise to those who had considered Tedford one of the game’s top quarterback coaches. Maynard improved dramatically over the course of last season, and the Golden Bears improved as a team with him. Before a mediocre performance in the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas, Cal won three of its final four regular-season games, its only loss in that stretch being a three-point defeat on the road to national power Stanford.
For Cal to exceed the fourth-place finish predicted for the Bears in the Pac-12 North, Maynard will have to have an outstanding season, both with his arm and his legs.
TB Isi Sofele (1,322 rushing yards last season) and his backup, C.J. Anderson, should provide a running threat behind an adequate offensive line, and the Bears’ turnaround last season paralleled the team’s increased reliance on its running game.
But the concern is the passing game. WR Keenan Allen provides All-American-caliber talent at one spot, assuming he is completely healthy following offseason ankle surgery, and Richard Rodgers has the potential to be something special at tight end. But Allen’s health, Rodgers’ inexperience and the lack of a proven wide receiver opposite Allen may make things difficult for Maynard.
Maynard must exhibit the good decision-making he had late last season, while adding the running threat that he showed occasionally last season but figures to use more in 2012.
The loss of both starting safeties – D.J. Campbell and Sean Cattouse – and both inside linebackers – Pac-12 defensive player of the year Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt – leaves a hole in the middle of Cal’s defense. The Bears have a number of talented linebackers, but it’s a matter of putting them in the right spots and getting them experience. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has done a good job of getting the most from his personnel, and having experience at both cornerback spots with Marc Anthony and Steve Williams is critical in the Pac-12.
If the Golden Bears flounder, fans will be wondering why Cal spent all that money to renovate Memorial Stadium. Cal played its home games at AT&T Park in San Francisco last year while construction was being done. The renovation is not expected to be completed by the time Cal plays its Sept. 1 opener against Nevada, but enough of the work is scheduled to be completed to play the Nevada game there without any problems.
–WR Keenan Allen, an all-conference selection last season who is on a number of preseason All-American lists, is still recovering from an offseason ankle injury and is not quite 100 percent as of July 24. He said he can make all the cuts, but he has not regained his conditioning. He estimates that he’s at about 85 percent and said he’d have trouble going full speed for four quarters. He expects to be 100 percent by the time practice begins in earnest, but it is still a concern for Cal because he is such a vital part of the offense. Allen suffered ligament damage to his right ankle during a pickup basketball game in March. It required surgery and kept him out of spring ball. He is a junior this season, and many expect this to be his final college season before he turns pro.
–Starting RG Dominic Galas had surgery on July 24 to repair a pectoral muscle that tore away from the bone. He is expected to be sidelined about three months, which means he should return sometime around mid-October. He was the team’s starting center last season, but was moved to guard because of problems snapping the ball in the shotgun formation.
SEPTEMBER OUTLOOK: Cal simply needs to survive September with its confidence in tact because it is difficult. Cal’s Sept. 1 opener against Nevada is significant not only because it presents a significant challenge (Nevada is picked to finish second in the Mountain West, behind only Boise State), but also because it will be the first game at renovated Memorial Stadium. The renovation is not expected to be completed by the time that game is played, although it is expected to be far enough along to play a football game there. Then on Sept. 15, Cal travels to Columbus to play Ohio State, with the Buckeyes returning to play Cal in Berkeley next year. The Buckeyes figure to be one of strongest Big Ten teams this season under Urban Meyer even though they are ineligible for postseason play. One week later the challenge is even bigger as the Bears open conference play on the road against conference favorite and national title contender USC.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: QB Zach Maynard must be efficient, completing a high percentage of passes and minimizing his interceptions. He completed 57 percent of his passes with 12 interceptions last year, and he has to improve significantly in both categories for Cal to challenge for a division title. These days, a 57-percent completion rate is simply not good enough. If he can improve those numbers sufficiently, it will help the Bears’ running game, which figures to be potent if opposing defenses are forced to respect the pass. The Bears also need to develop an outside receiving threat opposite Keenan Allen, so defenses cannot focus on him. Defensively, the pressure is on the inside linebackers and Josh Hill, who will be the mainstay at safety after both starting safeties from last year departed. Cal’s 3-4 defense depends on applying pressure and making big plays, and the players that produced 19 of Cal’s 34 sacks a year ago are gone. Somebody must become a big-play defender to replace those losses. Cal must survive the first four games without being disgraced. If the Bears can come out of it 2-2, they should be OK, and if they manage to be 3-1, the season could be promising.
CONCERNS: Inside linebacker and wide receiver are the biggest question marks, and they are pivotal positions on the football field. The Bears lost both of inside linebackers – Mychal Kendricks, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year who was a second-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles, and D.J. Holt, who was the team’s second-leading tackler and had 10.5 tackles for losses. That position is critical to the continued success of the defense. The Bears have talent there, but it is largely untested, with several players moving from the outside to the inside. Robert Mullins and Nick Forbes will get the first crack at those inside spots, but they are unlikely to be able to provide the play-making Holt and Kendricks did. The Bears also lose wide receiver Marvin Jones, who was drafted in the fifth round and provided the perfect complement to Keenan Allen. Redshirt freshman Maurice Harris is a tall receiver who looked good in the spring and may get the first crack at starting, although several incoming freshmen will get a good look. The loss of punter Bryan Anger, who drafted in the third round, and K Giorgio Tavecchio create holes that will be difficult to fill by their successors.
QUOTE “I think if you asked our fans if they’d rather be in a national championship game or the Rose Bowl, I think they’d say the Rose Bowl.” – Jeff Teford, coach of a Cal team that has not been to the Rose Bowl since the 1958 season.
HEAD COACH: Jeff Tedford, 11th year at Cal, 79-48 record at Cal and as a head coach.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Zach Maynard – The quarterback is the most important player on any team, but that’s particularly the case for Cal and Maynard. He played poorly the first eight games of last season, and the Golden Bears’ results showed it. He improved dramatically in the latter stages of the season and so did the Golden Bears, who won three of their last four regular-season game, losing only to Stanford in a close game in that span. He threw 10 interceptions in the first eight games, but just one in the last four (plus one in the bowl game against Texas). He also provides a vital running threat out of the option, and you can expect to see the Bears use Maynard as a runner more this season. If he gets hurt, the Bears’ season will go south in a hurry, because his backups leave a lot to be desired.
BREAKOUT STAR: TE Richard Rodgers – Jeff Tedford visited the New England Patriots’ camp over the summer to get some pointers on their tight end packages. That’s because Tedford thinks he has a future pro in Rodgers, who was a wide receiver in high school. Tedford wants to make better use of the tight end, especially now that he needs another receiving weapon to take the pressure off Keenan Allen on the outside.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Bryce Treggs – The Bears need immediate help at the wide receiver spot opposite Keenan Allen, and Treggs was the most highly touted of the Cal recruits. He is much like his father, Brian Treggs, who was a standout wide receiver for Cal. Treggs runs precise patters and has good hands, making up for average speed. He also exudes confidence, much like his father did, and is not afraid to say what he thinks.
–OLB Cecil Whiteside was dismissed from the team in May for violating team rules. He was not listed as a starter after spring, but he figured to get a lot of playing time, and made a number of big plays last season.
—QB Zach Maynard is on schedule to complete his summer course work (as of July 25) and is expected to be academically eligible when camp begins. Despite constant assurances by Cal coaches and officials that Maynard is academically eligible, rumors persist that he is in danger academically.
—WR Keenan Allen was named to the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Award.
—TB Isi Sofele was one of 52 players named to the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation’s top running back.
—CB Stefan McClure is still recovering for a torn anterior-cruciate ligament he sustained last season, and it’s unclear when he will be ready to return. He started two games at cornerback last season as a true freshman.