It’s been awhile since Cal was a player on the national scene, and it’s starting to bug Golden Bears fans, who had come to expect Jeff Tedford to produce nationally ranked teams every year.
Cal has not been nationally ranked since 2009, and it hasn’t finished a season in the Associated Press top 25 since 2006. The Golden Bears don’t resemble a top-25 team on paper this season either, but if a few things fall into place, they could be a factor in the Pac-12 North race, partly because the top two teams last season, Oregon and Stanford, have lost some key players.
Cal’s Sept. 1 season opener against Nevada may indicate whether the Golden Bears have the wherewithal to compete for a division title. It also may show whether QB Zach Maynard has continued to improve, which is the key to Cal’s success this year.
The Wolf Pack is picked to finish second in the Mountain West Conference, although the conference is not as strong as usual. But Nevada features the pistol offense, an option attack that gave the Bears defense fits the last time the team met in 2010, resulting in a 52-31 blowout Nevada victory. Colin Kaepernick was the Nevada quarterback then and he dominated the game with his passing and running. Now the Wolf Pack quarterback is Cody Fajardo, and he has star potential as well and fits the pistol attack.
The Golden Bears have a star wide receiver in Keenan Allen, who is expected to turn pro after this, his junior season, and a pair of solid running backs in starter Isi Sofele (1,322 rushing yards last season) and C.J. Anderson.
However, the Bears need another reliable wide receiver to take the pressure off Allen, and true freshman Bryce Treggs is listed as a starter for the opener. The Bears are hoping Richard Rodgers blossoms as a tight end. He has shown a lot of potential, but he has limited game experience.
The offensive line should be adequate, but the key to everything is Maynard, who played poorly the first half of last season, but improved markedly over the final four games of the regular season. It’s no coincidence Cal won three of those four games, losing only to Stanford on the road in a three-point defeat.
It’s not an overstatement to say that if Maynard continues his rate of improvement, Cal is a division contender. If his interceptions mount, though, Cal may have a losing record, considering it plays Ohio State, USC, Oregon and Stanford this season.
The Bears lost a lot of talent on defense, including inside linebackers Mychal Kendricks (the Pac-12 defensive player of the year) and D.J. Holt, as well as both starting safeties. Those are key players in defending the option, so it remains to be seen how the new starters deal with it. The Bears have a lot of talent at the linebacker position, but defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast may have to play with his personnel in the first few games to find the right combination.
Cal should win the game against Nevaa, but with the inexperience on defense and the problems Cal has had defending the option, it’s no guarantee.
—The opener against Nevada marks the debut of renovated Memorial Stadium, which was out of commission last season while upgrades were made, forcing the team to play its home games in San Francisco at AT&T Park. There had been reports that the stadium might not be ready for the season opener, but Cal insists it will be, although construction might not be complete on all the amenities. Cal began practicing in the stadium in mid-August.
—Cal has a lot of talent at the four linebacker spots, but only one of the four projected starters – Chris McCain – is a returning starter, and he started only six games in 2011. OLB Brennan Scarlett and ILB J.P. Hurrell have worked their way into the starting lineup during preseason camp, but there may be changes among starters at that position over the season.
—Cal could have an all-family passing combination. QB Zach Maynard and WR Keenan Allen are half-brothers and WR Maurice Harris is a cousin who figures to get a lot of playing time although he is no longer listed as a starter.
LOOKING AT THE CAL OFFENSE: The Golden Bears switched to more of a ground-oriented attack in the second half of 2011, and it served them well. Expect TB isi Sofele, who rushed for 1,322 yards last year and 5.2 yards per carry, to get a lot of work, hoping he can break a long one. His backup, C.J. Anderson, looked good in the spring and is likely to get significant action, too. Several other players will get carries too as the Bears are deep at running back. The Bears will try to get the ball to WR Keenan Allen any way possible, whether it be by passing to him or handing him the ball. True freshman WR Bryce Treggs is listed as a starter for the Nevada game, and the Bears need to establish a reliable threat at that position to take the defensive pressure off Allen. The offensive line should be adequate based on the returning personnel, but there are questions there that can only be answered in games. The key, of course, is QB Zach Maynard. He is far more effective when throwing on the move, so expect him to roll out often. Also look for him to run more often on designed running plays, including the option. He played well at the end of last season and in the spring, and the Bears need him to be a star.
LOOKING AT THE CAL DEFENSE: Quite a bit of talent exists on defense, but a lot of it is untested. Four of the Bears best defenders – ILBs Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holts and safeties Sean Cattouse and D.J. Campbell – are gone, leaving a sizable hole in the middle and leaving the Bears with inexperience in positions key to defending the option. Robert Mullins and J.P. Hurrell are expected to get the starts at inside linebacker, and Hurrell has very little experience other than special teams. Josh Hill should be a solid replacement at one safety spot, and Alex Logan will be the other safety. The Bears have returning starters at both cornerback spots in Steve Williams and Marc Anthony, and that should help. The Bears have lots of talent at outside linebacker, so a number of players should see playing time there, and these are the players that must make the big plays for the Bears. Cal is thin on the defensive line, so any injuries there could be a problem. At the moment, Cal seems to lack that one defensive star who can change a game, although there are several candidates. Cal led the Pac-12 in total defense last season, but it was wildly inconsistent – having some outstanding games, when opponents could not move the ball at all, and some inexplicably poor games, when opponents would move up and down the field at will.
QUOTE: “The scheme itself is very difficult to stop. We have our hands full. We have to be very disciplined.” – Cal coach Jeff Tedford, on Nevada’s pistol option offense, which the Bears did not defend well in the 52-31 loss to the Wolf Pack in 2010.
SATURDAY’S GAME: Nevada at Cal, Sept. 1 — The Wolf Pack is picked to finish second in the Mountain West after finishing 7-6 last season. Nevada dominated Cal the last time they played in 2010 – a 52-31 Nevada victory over a ranked Cal team, a game that was more one-sided than the score suggests. This is the first game in renovated Memorial Stadium, which was out of service last year when the work was being done, forcing the Bears to play home games at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads Nevada 22-2-1 (last meeting, 2010, 52-31 Nevada)
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR CAL: The Beas have a lot of inexperienced defenders, especially at linebacker, and they must avoid assignment mistakes to prevent Nevada from creating big plays with its option attack. The Bears did not come close to stopping Nevada’s offense when the teams met in 2010. Offensively, TBs Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson need to have big games, and QB Zach Maynard needs to have a mistake-free game. With the loss of its two best inside linebackers, the Wolf Pack should be vulnerable to the run. If Maynard does not throw any interceptions, Cal has a good chance to win.
CAL PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Keenan Allen – A preseason all-American according to several publications, Allen was 10th nationally last season in receiving yards per game. The Bears will use him on end-arounds and to return kicks as well, and he may even pass the ball on occasion.
TB Isi Sofele – Sofele rushed for 1,322 yards last season and proved durable despite his small stature. He got better as the season wore on last year, and the Bears are hoping for continued improvement.
LB Chris McCain – A sophomore, McCain seems poised for a big season. He had 6.0 tackles for losses last season as a freshman despite missing three games with an injury.
QB Zach Maynard – He is the key to any success Cal will have. Jeff Tedford figures to call more running plays for Maynard this season because he is fast and elusive. He threw 12 interceptions last season and completed just 57 percent of his passes; both those numbers need to improve.
—DE Aaron Tipoti is on the Watch list for the Outland Trophy, but that is supposed to be for tackles, guards and centers only. Tipoti was a nose tackle last season and started six games at that position. But he has been moved to defensive end and is listed as a starter.
—WR Bryce Treggs, son of former Cal wide receiver Brian Treggs, is the only true freshman scheduled to start against Nevada.
—DB Willie Fletcher, an incoming freshman, failed to get through the school’s summer bridge program classes and will not be with the team this season.
—Defensive linemen Deandre Coleman (foot), Mustafa Jalil (knee), Viliami Moala (head) and Puka Lopa (foot) all have missed practice time with injuries in the weeks leading up to the opener, but Cal expects most, if not all, to be ready for the Nevada game.