Location: Berkeley, Cal.
Nickname: Golden Bears.
2008 Countdown ranking: No. 22.
What I said in last year’s preview:
The Countdown believes the 2008 Golden Bears will more closely resemble the 10-win team of 2006 than the disappointing 2007 squad that disappeared down the stretch. So how good can Cal be? Not the best in the Pac-10, at least in my eyes, but certainly good enough to win nine or ten games. The good news, at least with the schedule, is that the Bears get Oregon and Arizona State at home; however, the bad news is that the Bears need to go to U.S.C. and Oregon State. Over all, I predict a 9-3 finish, 6-3 in the Pac-10.
Postseason re-ranking: No. 21.
2008 record and recap: (9-4, 6-3). A very nice bounce-back season for California after disappointing in 2007. The Golden Bears entered 2008 with much lower expectations, not ranked in either poll after starting the 2007 season as the 12th-ranked team in the F.B.S. But an under-the-radar approach will only get you so far: Cal needed to get a vastly improved effort on defense, which it did. The Bears allowed 92 less total points on the season, an average of roughly a touchdown (with an extra point) less per game, and gave up only 315.2 yards per game. That output was the lowest of the Jeff Tedford era, as well the fewest the Bears had allowed in a season since 1994. I’ve got to be honest: when I think Cal football, I don’t necessarily think defense. That changed last fall, and if the Bears can get similar production from this side of the ball in 2009, the team will be a realistic national title contender. However, Cal must begin beating the better teams on its schedule; last fall saw the Bears drop two of three against Top 25 competition.
High point: The season’s most impressive win was a 26-16 victory over then-No. 24 Oregon, as the Ducks would go on to rank among the top 15 teams in the F.B.S. at year’s end. Just as the victory over U.O. would reveal itself to be more impressive as the season progressed, an opening weekend victory over Michigan State (by 38-31) looked better and better following State’s nine-win finish. After Tedford first loss in the rivalry in 2007, Cal topped Stanford by 37-16 to reclaim the top spot in Big Game bragging rights.
Low point: Cal followed up its solid win over Oregon with two disappointing losses, both to top 25 competition: by 17-3 to then-No. 7 U.S.C. and by 34-21 to then-No. 23 Oregon State. The Bears managed only 165 yards of total offense in the loss to U.S.C., including 27 yards rushing on 26 attempts. A late comeback fell short in a 35-27 road loss to Maryland on Sept. 13.
Tidbit: It’s the case with most teams, but especially true with Cal: win the turnover battle, win the game. Last fall saw the Bears improve its turnover margin by a whopping three per game, from a -1.2 margin in 2007 to +1.8. That is a staggering improvement. Imagine if, before every game, you knew your team would force two more turnovers than it would commit? In all, Cal is 34-3 under Tedford when committing fewer turnovers than its opponent; it is 13-19 when those roles are reversed. Continuing with this theme, Cal is an impressive 22-1 in Pac-10 play when committing fewer turnovers.
Tidbit (awkward edition): For those interested in hearing me ramble incoherently and awkwardly with the great Wiz of Odds, check out our podcast on his Web site, completed earlier this afternoon. What was discussed? In no particular order, the method behind the Countdown’s madness; how I spend a typical Saturday afternoon (knitting, mostly); the role my brother plays in forming the final 120-1 list; a few programs on the rise in 2009; and how I feel about recruiting Web sites. In retrospect, that last part came across as very Andy Rooney-like. If you listen closely, in the first minute you should be able to hear the sound of a Diet Coke bottle spilling on the floor, where it soaked my sandals. The roar of construction workers attending to the side of my building can be heard throughout.
Former players in the N.F.L.: 35 – DT Lorenzo Alexander (Washington Redskins), CB Nnamdi Asomugha (Oakland Raiders), LB Tully Banta-Cain (New England Patriots), C David Binn (San Diego Chargers), LB Desmond Bishop (Green Bay Packers), QB Kyle Boller (St. Louis Rams), OG Brian De La Puente (Seattle Seahawks), S Thomas DeCoud (Atlanta Falcons), LB Anthony Felder (San Diego Chargers), LB Zack Follett (Detroit Lions), RB Justin Forsett (Seattle Seahawks), LB Scott Fujita (New Orleans Saints), OG Mike Gibson (Philadelphia Eagles), S Matt Giordano (Indianapolis Colts), TE Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta Falcons), P Nick Harris (Detroit Lions), WR Lavelle Hawkins (Tennessee Titans), CB Dante Hughes (Indianapolis Colts), WR DeSean Jackson (Philadelphia Eagles), C L.P. LaDouceur (Dallas Cowboys), K Ryan Longwell (Minnesota Vikings), RB Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo Bills), C Alex Mack (Cleveland Browns), DT Brandon Mebane (Seattle Seahawks), TE Cameron Morrah (Seattle Seahawks), OG Ryan O’Callaghan (New England Patriots), CB Deltha O’Neal (Houston Texans), C Marvin Philip (Buffalo Bills), QB Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers), TE Craig Stevens (Tennessee Titans), FB Bryon Storer (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), FB Will Ta’ufo’ou (Chicago Bears), OT Langston Walker (Buffalo Bills), OT Mark Wilson (Oakland Raiders).
Top five N.F.L. players from California: Tony Gonzalez is the undisputed star of a mediocre list, especially for a team in the Countdown’s top 10.
1. TE Tony Gonzalez (K.C., Atlanta; 1997-present)
2. LB Les Richter (Los Angeles; 1954-62)
3. LB Hardy Nickerson (Pit., T.B., Jack., G.B.; 1987-2002)
4. RB Chuck Muncie (N.O., S.D.; 1976-84)
5. QB Craig Morton (Dal., Giants, Denver; 1965-82)
Head coach: Jeff Tedford (Fresno State ’83), 59-30 over seven seasons as coach. His winning percentage (66.2) 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 (1998-2001), finishing in the top 25 four of the last five 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 looks to have the goods – though their lack of pro success speaks even more highly of Tedford’s coaching acumen. This year’s Golden Bears will ride the running game, not its 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 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 5-1 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 6-1 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.
Returning starters: 15 (7 offense, 8 defense).
Key losses: I don’t think there’s any question that the biggest loss on offense is center Alex Mack, the 2008 first-team all-conference and second-team all-American selection. The three-year starter was also a two-time finalist for the Rimington Trophy, though he never won the award. Mack and Oregon’s Max Unger shared the spotlight over the their respective times in the starting lineup, alternating years as a first-team all-conference pick and giving the Pac-10 two of the best centers in the nation. However, it was Mack, and not Unger, who won the Pac-10’s Morris Trophy – given to the conference’s top offensive lineman – not once, but twice: 2007 and 2008. He is one of two players in Pac-10 history to win the award in two seasons. Noris Malele, a 2008 second-team all-conference pick, started 12 of 13 games next to Mack at right guard. Malele started at that spot in 35 of his final 39 games. The skill positions return largely intact, with the biggest loss being the would-be senior tight end Cameron Morrah, who elected to enter the N.F.L. draft with a season of eligibility remaining. While his athletic ability was never in doubt, Morrah did not earn significant playing time until his junior season. He did play well last fall, ranking second on the team in receptions (27) and third in yards (326) while pacing the Bears in touchdown grabs (eight). The receiver corps must also replace key reserve LaReylle Cunningham, who made 18 catches for 276 yards (15.3 yards per reception) as a senior. Of course, Cal will be without the services of quarterback Nate Longshore, who started all or parts of the last three seasons. Yes, his play was sometimes erratic, and Longshore never played up to the level many expected of him when he took over for Aaron Rodgers as a redshirt freshman. Still, he concluded his college career tied for third on the school’s all-time list with 51 touchdown passes.
The losses on defense, though small in number, are focused mainly at linebacker. This is unfortunate, as Cal’s 3-4 defense places a premium on a talented and athletic starting unit. There is no question that the departed trio fit that bill. All three losses hurt, but none more so than that of Zack Follett. One of the Countdown’s personal favorites over the past few seasons – largely because of his motor and his propensity for oddly dyed hair color – Follett was a first-team all-conference selection as a senior, when he led Cal with 23 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. His tackles for loss total was larger than his two next closest competitors combined. A four-year contributor, Follett started in the middle, moved to the weakside as a sophomore, and excelled upon moving to the strongside as a junior. He was an excellent college football player. Both Anthony Felder and Worrell Williams, also departed, were honorable mention all-conference picks. Felder, who also honorable mention honors as a junior, led the Bears with 93 stops a season ago. He was an important four-year contributor, though his sophomore season was limited due to injuries. Williams joined Felder in the middle of Cal’s 3-4 set, making 64 tackles, a sack and an interception. Defensive line depth took a slight hit following the graduation of end Rulon Davis and tackle Mika Kane. Despite being limited to nine games as a senior, Davis posted 19 tackles and 4 sacks, the latter of which tied for third on the team. Kane (14 tackles) made three starts as a senior, though he remained an important member of the line rotation even when not in the starting lineup.
Players to watch: Cal has trotted out an 1,000-yard rusher in each of Tedford’s seven seasons with the program, with the junior Jahvid Best the latest to continue this sterling streak. To put it mildly, Best is a worthy addition to Cal’s recent history of able running backs. Alright, I’m just going to throw it out there: There are a lot of players in the F.B.S., a lot of great players, but no other player keeps me on the edge of my seat like Best, the most electric, explosive ball-carrier in the nation. He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball, as shown by his 19 carries of 20 yards or more, seven of 60 or more and three of 80 or more. He finished his breakout sophomore campaign with 1,580 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns, the latter tying for the school record; his 8.1 yards per carry – are you kidding me – set a new school mark. Best is clearly among the nation’s elite, regardless of position, and a definite contender for the Heisman Trophy. In fact, he’s the top candidate outside the high-profile quarterback class. But he’s not the only show in town in the Cal backfield. Backing up Best, and rushing for 715 yards in the process, was the sophomore Shane Vereen. He’ll occupy the same role again this season. The Bears had an uncharacteristically average season at quarterback last season, one fact that must change if this team hopes to challenge U.S.C. for Pac-10 supremacy. Best can only do so much, and the team must find improved play from the junior Kevin Riley, who beat out a pair of challengers to retain his starting role. Riley was not terrible last fall, throwing for 1,360 yards with a strong 14-6 touchdown to interception ratio, but he completed only 50.7 percent of his passes. Riley’s a winner, however, as shown by his 7-2 record as the starter last fall. Cal has hopes that a more experienced receiving corps will pay dividends in the passing game. The senior Nyan Boateng returns after leading the Bears in receptions (29) and receiving yards (439) last fall, as does the senior Verran Tucker (21 grabs for 362 yards, a team-best 17.2 yards per reception). The junior Jeremy Ross will also be in the mix, while the team may get production from some yet-untested youngsters, such as the sophomores Alex Lagemann, Marvin Jones and Michael Calvin. The offensive will miss Mack and Malele on the inside, to be sure. But the group will remain solid, thanks to the healthy return of the senior left tackle Mike Tepper from injury and three additional returning starters. Tepper’s return – he missed all of 2008 – pushes the talented sophomore Mitchell Schwartz to the right side, where he made three starts as a rookie (he also made 10 starts on the blindside). The junior Mark Boskovich, a first-team all-conference pick last fall, will again man the lft guard spot, with Mack’s open center spot likely filled by the junior Chris Guarnero, a three-game starter at guard in 2008. The senior Chet Teofilo, who made six starts at tackle a year ago (three on the left side, three on the right) will move inside to right guard. This current alignment allows the five best linemen on the team to be in the starting lineup.
This should be a very strong Cal defense. Its strength is certainly in an opportunistic secondary, which returns all four starters from a season ago. This quartet combined to make 12 interceptions on the year. The undisputed star of the group is the senior cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson, an all-conference pick last fall and a heavy favorite for all-American honors in his final season. Thompson has started all 39 games of his already splendid career, making six interceptions and 26 pass breakups. He’s not just a cover corner, however, as shown by his 70 stops last year (7.5 for loss, 2 sacks) and his career total of 208, which leads all active Bears. The junior cornerback Darian Hagan joins Thompson. He takes on the unenviable task of getting the most attention from opposing quarterbacks (due to Thompson’s talents), but has acquitted himself well as the second corner. He made three interceptions of his own last fall, and led the team with 15 pass breakups. The seniors Brett Johnson (43 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Marcus Ezeff (66 tackles, 3 picks) return at safety, giving Cal a talented and experienced defensive backfield. This group makes life difficult for Pac-10 quarterbacks. While the linebacker corps must be rebuilt (more on that in a moment), Cal will be strong up front. The team plays mainly with three down linemen, obviously, and all three return in 2009: ends Tyson Alualu and Cameron Jordan and nose tackle Derrick Hill. Alualu and Jordan are terrific. Alualu, a senior, earned second-team all-conference honors last fall, when he made 62 tackles (11 for loss) and 6 sacks. His tackle total was the most by a Cal lineman since 1995. Alualu has started all 13 games in each of the last two seasons, while Jordan, a junior, broke into the starting lineup for seven games in 2008. He matched Alualu with 11 tackles for loss, tying for second on the team, and added four sacks and an interception. Jordan was an honorable mention all-conference selection, but he has the talent to earn first-team honors as a junior. Hill started nine games last fall, splitting time with Kane, but takes on the mantle of the team’s top interior lineman in 2009. Depth may be a concern in the middle, as the redshirt freshman Kendrick Payne currently stands as the team’s top reserve. The senior Kevin Bemoli and the junior Mike Costanzo, a former offensive lineman, round out the depth chart at nose tackle.
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