One question summarizes Cal's prospects for the 2009 season, and it's not, "Will the quarterbacks play better than they did last year?" Instead, the question in Berkeley is: If not now, when? If the Bears cannot overtake USC now—with the Trojans breaking in a new quarterback and a new defense and having to visit Berkeley on Oct. 3—then when will they? If they can't make the big plays and the big stops in the big late-season games now—with all that talent at the skill positions and eight starters returning on defense—when will they?
"Everybody believes we can be Pac-10 champions," quarterback Kevin Riley said. And Riley will an integral part of Cal's success, or failure, in that long-awaited endeavor. If there is efficient, consistent quarterback play, then all things are possible for the Bears, who boast one of the top defenses in the conference and one of the top playmakers in the country in tailback Jahvid Best. Best rushed for 1,580 yards last season despite missing a game to injury and not having a complementary aerial attack. Defenses were designed to stop him, yet he still averaged 8.1 yards per carry and 131.7 yards per game.
But the Bears haven't fielded a top-notch quarterback since Aaron Rodgers was under center in 2004. The current troubles actually began in the second half of the '07 season, when coach Jeff Tedford stuck with Nate Longshore through a dreadful series of performances. Last fall, Tedford took the opposite approach and used a quick hook with Riley, yanking the sophomore despite a 3-1 record and solid numbers. The seasonlong rotation with Longshore produced stagnation at the position and a fourth-place finish.
Longshore's gone, but Riley's back for his junior year to compete with sophomore Brock Mansion and redshirt freshman Beau Sweeney for the starting job. There is much greater uncertainty about how Riley will play than whether he'll play: He's mobile and tough and can make all throws, but his accuracy has been an issue in the past. With the help of Tedford and new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, Riley has tweaked his mechanics and hopes to improve on his efficiency rating (117.85). The Bears lost All-American center Alex Mack and guard Noris Malele but have veteran replacements at both spots and should be solid up front—they can go nine or 10 deep if necessary. Like Riley, the receivers are experienced but must become more efficient: They must catch a higher percentage of passes and run crisper routes. Six players are competing for playing time, but all the Bears need is for one to emerge as an impact player and make defenses pay for stacking the line to stop Best.
Defensively, the Bears are set at nine spots, the only holes in their 3-4 alignment being at linebacker. Depending on their success filling those holes, coordinator Bob Gregory's unit could be even better than it was last year—and that was pretty good. The Bears were fourth in total defense, second in scoring defense and first in takeaways. They have all-conference talent on every level, from end Tyson Alualu to linebacker Mike Mohamed and cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson.
2008 record: 9-4 overall, 6-3 Pac-10
Bowl: Champs Sports, beat Miami 24-17
Coach: Jeff Tedford
Sept. 5: Maryland 10 p.m.
Sept. 12: Eastern Washington 5:30 p.m.
Sept. 19: at Minnesota Noon
Sept. 26: at Oregon 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 3: USC 8 p.m.
Oct. 17: at UCLA TBA
Oct. 24: Washington State TBA
Oct. 31: at Arizona State TBA
Nov. 7: Oregon State TBA
Nov. 14: Arizona TBA
Nov. 21: at Stanford TBA
Dec. 5: at Washington 6:30 p.m.
Three to watch
Jahvid Best, RB, Jr. Heisman candidate after back-to-back first-team all-Pac-10 seasons, and the leading returning rusher in the nation.
Syd'Quan Thompson, CB, Sr. Started all 39 games of his college career and is Cal's active leader in tackles, interceptions and four other categories.
Tyson Alualu, DE, Sr. Made 62 tackles last year, most for a Cal defensive lineman since Duane Clemons in 1995