The California Golden Bears can win the Pac-12 North in 2012. No doubt about it.
Yes, I said it—Cal has a shot to win the Pac-12 North after finishing 2011 with a 7-6 record and a 21-10 Holiday Bowl loss to Texas. There will undoubtedly be many obstacles along the way, but Cal definitely has a shot to pull it off.
Will they do it? We'll just have to wait and see.
But as we wait for the season to start, let's take a look at how they can pull it off.
In 2011, the California Golden Bears played all of their home games at AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants.
But for 2012, the Bears will return home to Memorial Stadium, just across the street from campus in Berkeley. This will be a huge boost for the team after playing in front of fairly weak crowds all season long in San Francisco. With the games back at Memorial Stadium, the students and alumni will return to the games and energize the team.
Plus, the Bears play a total of seven home games in 2012. Their opponents will be Nevada, Southern Utah, Arizona State, UCLA, Stanford, Washington and Oregon.
In order for Cal to win the Pac-12 North, it needs to go 7-0 at home, something that it can definitely accomplish despite playing Stanford and Oregon at home.
I just mentioned how going 7-0 at home is an attainable feat despite having to face Oregon and Stanford, the two Pac-12 North favorites, at home—you're probably wondering how.
Well, let's take a look.
Oregon is losing both running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas (both pictured above) to the NFL as both have declared to forgo their senior seasons to play football professionally. While the Ducks will still have running backs Kejon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, this is still a huge blow because James and Thomas were the leaders of the team.
Meanwhile at Stanford, their star quarterback, Andrew Luck, has elected to do the same as James and Thomas. Luck will almost certainly be the top pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, which just shows how much he meant to the Stanford Cardinal football team. Yes, the Cardinal were heavily based on the run, but their two best offensive lineman, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, are also leaving early for the NFL.
Those are, by far and away, Cal's two biggest rivals in the Pac-12 North.
The Golden Bears had one of the best recruiting classes in the nation lined up for 2012 until defensive line coach and top recruiter Tosh Lupoi left to coach at Washington.
Now, the Bears are left with the fallout of his departure and it stings. Defensive end Ellis McCarthy de-committed from Cal and will be attending UCLA in 2012. Another defensive end, Arik Armstead, is undecided between Cal, Auburn and Notre Dame. On the offensive end, wide receiver Jordan Payton is now undecided about his previous commitment to Cal.
But the biggest blow of all is the nation's top safety, Shaq Thompson, who has de-committed from Cal and is supposedly 50-50 between the Bears and the Washington Huskies.
Despite all of that, the Bears still have put together one of the best recruiting classes they have ever seen. They're led by the No. 3 quarterback in the nation, Zach Kline (pictured), and a host of other great recruits. And perhaps most importantly, they still have a shot at reeling in Armstead, Payton and Thompson.
If Cal can get those guys to buy into the Golden Bear program, they will have plenty of playmakers who could see action in 2012.
Zach Maynard became Cal's starting quarterback last season after sitting out for a season after transferring from Buffalo.
He was heavily criticized by fans but he put together a solid season, throwing for 2,990 yards, 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while putting together a record of 7-6. He was also very mobile whenever coach Jeff Tedford asked him to be and rushed for 108 yards with four touchdowns.
Pushing him in spring practice will be the 2011 California Gatorade Player of the Year and the No. 3 rated high school quarterback in the nation, Zach Kline. Kline graduated high school early to be able to attend Cal this spring and get a head start on his Cal career. This also means that if he is good enough, Tedford could give him a serious look as the starter.
Opening up the quarterback battle will only make the team better because it would push both of them to become better in order to win the starting job. And that means that at the end of the day, Cal is left with a better quarterback than last season, whether it's Maynard or Kline.
In 2011, Cal saw the most success when it was able to rely on its running game to control the pace of the game. The Bears won three of their final four regular season games—the lone loss was a 31-28 loss to Stanford—and in each win, the Bears' rushing attack dominated; Cal averaged 278.3 rushing yards per game in the three wins.
Leading the Cal rushing attack was junior Isi Sofele, who finished the season with 1,382 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns while his backup, C.J. Anderson, rushed for 345 yards and eight touchdowns. Even quarterback Zach Maynard rushed for 108 yards and four touchdowns on the season.
The Bears need to stick with a run-heavy offense in order to help their quarterback, whether it be Zach Maynard or Zach Kline. It will open up the passing lanes, and having a nice combination of outside speed in Sofele and a big, bruising back in Anderson makes it all for the better.
In 2011, Cal had the best defense in the Pac-12 and the 25th best total defense in the nation.
The problem is linebacker Mychal Kendricks (pictured), the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, will be graduating in the spring, amongst multiple other Bears. But Cal has rebuilt its defense before and it has the depth to do it again.
Up front, the Bears will have 6'2", 350-pound sophomore Viliami Moala in line for much more playing time. In the secondary, sophomore Stefan McClure is expected to be a big piece of Cal's future once he comes back from injury and Shaq Thompson, should re-commit to Cal, could see a lot of playing time as a true freshman.
But it's at linebacker where Cal has the most depth. The Bears have four players lined up to be a big part of the 2012 season: Cecil Whiteside, Chris McCain, David Wilkerson and Dan Camporeale. All four played well in 2011 and will need to step up in a big way next season.
The Cal defense kept them in multiple games throughout 2011 and they need to be just as dominant in 2012 for Cal to have a shot at winning the Pac-12 North.