By David Leon Moore, USA TODAY
California is the only team to beat back-to-back national champ Southern California since the end of the 2002 season. But two big reasons California occupied prime real estate recently in the national college football landscape are gone.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who went from obscure junior college recruit to first-round NFL draft pick, is a Green Bay Packer. Running back J.J. Arrington, the first Cal player to lead his conference in rushing since Joe Kapp in 1958, is an Arizona Cardinal. But perhaps the biggest reason the Bears have growled the last several years is back: coach Jeff Tedford.
Tedford, subject of innumerable hiring rumors during his successful turnaround of the program, signed a new five-year deal at the end of last season that nearly doubled his salary to $1.5 million. So he's rich. But after Rodgers and Arrington and 11 other starters departed, can he keep the wins coming? With just nine returning starters, Cal has the fewest of any team in the Pac-10.
Fortunately for the growing legion of Bears fans, one of the new starters is sophomore running back Marshawn Lynch, who backed up Arrington last year and gained 628 yards, averaging a remarkable 8.8 yards a carry.
At Cal, they think the 5-11, 215-pound Lynch has the potential to one day compete for a Heisman Trophy. "He is such a special player," Tedford says. "I expect great things from him. He's probably the best all-around football player I've ever been around. He's got speed. He can catch the football. He's a really, really exciting player. I'm anxious to see him be in the lead role now."
Tedford's talent at producing a balanced offense — the primary factor in Cal rising to No. 4 in the polls last year, their best ranking in 52 years, and finishing 10-2 — will be significantly tested. The brilliant Rodgers, who threw for 2,566 yards and 24 touchdowns last year, will be replaced by an inexperienced signal-caller — either junior college transfer Joe Ayoob, a 6-3 junior from San Francisco City College, or 6-5 redshirt freshman Nate Longshore.
"It's definitely a question mark about our season," Tedford says. "Aaron was a pretty special guy. He did so much in such a short period of time. Now we'll be going with guys who have never taken a snap at this level." But Cal's Pac-10 opponents won't be surprised if Ayoob or Longshore, or both, is Tedford's next success story. Tedford, 43, a former Fresno State quarterback and assistant at Fresno State and Oregon, has coached seven quarterbacks who have gone on to start an NFL game.
"That guy is a great coach," Southern California linebacker Dallas Sartz says. Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, the returning USC quarterback, says Tedford "has done a great job of recruiting and developing a system that works."
Cal's returnees seem confident of Tedford's ability to generate another whiz-bang offense. "Coach Tedford, when it comes to QBs, he did it with A-Rodg, he can do it with these guys," veteran cornerback Harrison Smith says.
And the Bears can't wait to see what Lynch does with 20-25 carries a game. "He's ridiculous," Smith says. "I've never seen anybody have the kind of impact he has. He's getting better and better. I'm happy I don't have to play against him."
Lynch, who added 15 pounds of muscle since last season, says playing at Cal and for Tedford "has been a dream. He knows what he wants and knows how to get it done."
Lynch says he's not feeling pressure to carry a big load for the Bears. "Not at all," he says. "I'll just let the season come to me and take whatever it gives me. It's an 11-man game, not a one-man game."
It's more like a 22-man game, and Cal has to be concerned about losing its top six tacklers and returning three defensive starters.
But Tedford and his staff have brought in a lot of talent on defense, both from high schools and junior colleges.
"I think we can keep it going," junior nose tackle Brandon Mebane says. "We've got a lot of competition for jobs, and I think that's a good thing. It makes people work harder." Cal will be aided by a soft schedule to start. Chances would seem good for the Bears to be 5-0 when they travel to UCLA Oct. 8 and 8-0 before traveling to Oregon Nov. 5. The Nov. 12 home game against USC could decide the Pac-10 title.
Cal beat the Trojans 34-31 early in the 2003 season, but USC went on to finish 12-1 and win a share of the national title. Cal outplayed the Trojans last year but lost 23-17, and USC went on to a 13-0 record and a repeat title. "They're very strong, no question about it," Tedford says of the Trojans. "But to have the national champion in your league every year really gives you incentive to go after it yourself." Tedford believes Cal can win a national title. Because he stayed, so do Cal fans.