By Chris Dufresne
No. 16 California
First, a little context: California football was 0-11, 3-8 and 1-10 in the three seasons before Jeff Tedford arrived as coach in 2002. The Golden Bears would have counted their lucky stars to land Tedford, but they didn't have any. The team Tedford inherited from Tom Holmoe was this bad: Cal was supposed to play at Rutgers the weekend after Sept. 11, 2001, but the game was postponed to Nov. 23. When November rolled around, Cal was 0-10 and Rutgers had lost its last three Big East Conference games by the scores of 80-7, 42-0 and 38-7. Rutgers wanted to cancel the game, but Cal said no way. It was willing to fly across the country to pick up its only victory, 20-10.
Cal then got a huge break. Tedford, an assistant on Mike Bellotti's Oregon staff, was set to take the San Diego State job when Cal made an 11th hour call to change his mind. Tedford is 59-30 in seven seasons at Berkeley and his team is pressing to make another run at USC for this year's Pacific 10 Conference title. The Golden Bears rate higher in other preseason publications -- Phil Steele (9), Athlon (11), Lindy's (12), ESPN.com (13) and USA Today (12) -- but Rankman is more cautious if only because he has followed Cal's ups and bumps through the years. Cal has been a good, not great, program that needs to finish a sale. In 2003, Cal appeared destined to become USC's primary challenger after it shocked the Trojans in a triple-overtime thriller.
But the story ended with Cal finishing 8-6 and USC winning the Associated Press national title. Cal has since lost five games in a row to USC. Why will this year be different? "We have great respect for them," Tedford said of the Trojans. "We don't fear them. We don't look at that differently this year, only that we play them at home." In 2006, Cal was 8-1 before consecutive losses at Arizona and USC wrecked the team's outright conference title hopes (Cal was co-Pac-10 champion but lost the BCS bid to USC).
In 2007, Cal was 5-0 and mere yards from becoming the No. 1 ranked team in the country for the first time since 1951 when it suffered a crushing home loss against Oregon State and collapsed to a 7-6 finish. Last year, an early-riser loss at Maryland lost Cal some national credibility. Is it finally Tedford time? His team has the league's fastest running back in Jahvid Best. Cal has had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of Tedford's seven seasons. The Golden Bears return eight starters on defense and USC loses eight. Cal has another early-morning test, at Minnesota on Sept. 12. But at least this year the team is flying in early to get body-clock acclimated. And, before Cal gets to USC on Oct. 3, it must play at Oregon on Sept. 26. If Cal can get to 4-0 before it faces USC, that becomes the Pac-10 game of the year and another Berkeley now-or-never moment.