Well another year, another disappointing Cal football season. Of course, we're getting so used to this now why should we even be surprised? What doesn't make sense about a really talented football team with the most explosive running back in the country and a defense that was in the top 20 the previous season getting absolutely crushed the first time it plays real competition, then seemingly righting itself and beating their arch rival, then getting absolutely crushed again, this time by a team that didn't even reach bowl eligibility? Top it all off with another loss to a pretty good team in the postseason and you've learned that being a Cal football fan isn't too different from being on 3-4 month long roller coaster. Even more similar to a roller coaster, there are times when you feel you're having the time of your life and there are other times when you, well, want to vomit.
But all similes aside it makes a certain amount of sense that not much is expected of Cal this season. They disappointed last season and they have most of their starters returning from their inconsistent quarterback to their underachieving defense. However, there are more reasons for optimism in Berkeley than I think most analysts and Pac-10 fans acknowledge. I don't buy that Cal will be a worse team this year than they were last year, and I certainly don't buy the seventh or eigth place finish in the conference that many have predicted.
So without further ado, here is my football preview for the 2010 Cal Golden Bears.
Kevin Riley had a really good start to the 2009 season against three pretty bad teams in Maryland, Eastern Washington, and Minnesota before two awful performances against Oregon and USC. He got back on track against UCLA, Washington State, and Arizona State. He was then up and down in games against Oregon State, Arizona, Stanford, Washington, and Utah. He finished the season having completed about 55 percent of his passes for 2,850 yards and 18 touchdowns, along with eight interceptions. Those are certainly not bad numbers, but in games against USC and Oregon specifically, he was downright awful, going 15 of 40 against the Trojans, and 12 of 31 against the Ducks. While certainly some of his inconsistency is on him, a great deal of it is also on his offensive line for a surprising lack of protection, and some of his receivers for not always being reliable. I think the line should improve with another year of experience under their belt, and receivers should as well for reasons I will get to later in this article. If both of these things happen, Riley's completion percentage should not only improve but also be more consistent from week to week, which could go a long way in helping the Bears surprise.
Cal has been a running back factory over the past few years and last season was the first time in a a long time that they didn't produce a 1,000 yard rusher. Not to say they didn't get good production from their tailbacks. Before he sustained multiple injuries, Jahvid Best was on pace for another good year. But the injuries came and Best was forced to watch from the sidelines as his backup, Shane Vereen, got to show his ability as the team's starting running back. Vereen didn't disappoint as he ran for 566 yards in the final four games of the season, including 193 yards in the Bears' Big Game win over Stanford.
Now Best is off to the NFL and Vereen becomes the full-time starter in the backfield. While he isn't quite the speed-demon Best was, Vereen's certainly fast enough to break the long run and is also an improvement when it comes to running between the tackles and being a workhorse (he carried the ball 42 times against Stanford). Add in him being very durable and a good receiver out of the backfield and you have a budding star in the Pac-10.
There is also a lot of talent behind Vereen in players like Isi Sofele, who's small, quick and elusive, Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson a slightly bigger back who also has good speed, and Dasarte Yarnway who has the look of a power back.
Running back should once again be one of Cal's strengths in 2010.
Marvin Jones was Cal's leading receiver last year with 43 receptions for 651 yards. Their second leading receiver was Verran Tucker with 29 catches for 453 yards. It's no secret that the Bears' receivers need to improve in order for the team to compete this year, and they should for a couple of reasons.
First is that most of the Bears' receivers are back and a year older. Players such as Jones, Jeremy Ross, Alex Lagemann, and Anthony Miller have another year of experience and should be better than they were last year. While I can't say any of them were bad last season, Jones is the only one who looks to have start potential. His numbers weren't jaw-dropping, but he was still very consistent and made some some pretty terrific catches. If he continues to be reliable and starts getting more yards after the catch, he could become a very dangerous target in Cal's offense.
Second, the Bears recruited a great deal of talent at the receiver position last year, and some of these players look ready to contribute right away. The big name of the bunch is Keenan Allen, who was also a safety in high school, but his good size, speed, and hands translate very well to receiver. He has earned a starting job alongside Jones and the combination of the two could become one of the Pac-10's better receiving duos by the end of the season. But Allen isn't the only newcomer who could get playing time in Berkeley. Both Kaelin Clay and Coleman Edmond have done well enough in camp to possibly get in the rotation. Clay is a freshman from Long Beach Poly, the same school where another pretty good Cal wide receiver went (I think his name was Lesean or something). Edmond is a JC transfer who also ran track at UCLA for a little while.
If Allen and Jones can live up to their potential at the starting spots, and the other members of the rotation can be solid contributers, the receiver position could go from a weakness to a strength at Cal.
While the offensive line did a good job of blocking for the running backs last season, they struggled in pass protection, allowing Riley to get sacked 30 times. That number has to go down. If he isn't getting support from his O-line, Cal's offense will sputter, no matter how well he's playing. The good news is that four starters return this year and they should be much improved, providing both run and pass protection.
On the defensive side, two out of three starters return to Cal's D-line this year, which should be one of the strengths of the defense. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has the ability to be a downright monster, and it looks as though he's working hard to finally meet his potential as a senior. At nose tackle, It seems as though Derek Hill has been at Cal forever and while he is obviously talented and has played very well at times, he is also injury prone. If he can remain healthy and bounce back from his recent setbacks (including a battle with gout) he could have a big senior season. However, do to Hill's misfortune, Kendrick Payne also has a big chance to prove himself as a starter at the nose tackle position. Payne, a sophomore played in 12 games last year, and started twice, and played well enough at camp to possibly overtake Derek Hill. The other end will be manned by Ernest Owusu, who got some playing time last year, and Deandre Coleman, a very promising redshirt freshman. While the Bears will miss terrific DE Tyson Alualu, the Bears D-line should still be solid in stopping the run and, with new defensive coordinator, Clancy Pendergast's system, put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The Bears have plenty of talent at Linebacker with All Pac-10 performer Mike Mohamed, as well as players like Mychal Kendricks, D.J. Holt, and Keith Browner. Mohamed led the conference in tackles and could well do so again, while Kendricks has shown flashes of brilliance but needs to become more consistent. Browner was originally a defensive end before being moved to outside linebacker, and should be a good pass rusher in Pendergast's new aggressive scheme. Holt is also a talented guy who should improve after starting in eight games last year, but he needs to up his numbers from the 37 tackles he made a year ago. True freshman Dave Wilkerson looks like he'll get playing time as a backup. While this season's crop of linebackers is mostly the same as last year's crop, they have the talent to be one of the top groups in the Pac-10. You can't ask Mike Mohamed to do much more than he did last year, leading the Pac-10 in tackles and making the game-clinching interception against rival Stanford. But the other players must step up, and with Kendricks, who's predecessor, Worrell Williams, has said that he has the potential to be "the best linebacker at Cal" and teammates like Holt and Browner, they really have no excuses if they disappoint.
No one on Cal disappointed more last season than CB Darian Hagan. After playing very well as a sophomore in 2008, he was burned again and again in 2009. But Hagan had his reasons for his struggles, and those seem to be behind him, so don't be surprised to see him bounce back and recapture his 2008 form in 2010. On the other side, it looks as though Marc Anthony will get the starting nod over very promising freshman Steve Williams. Although not much was said about him early on, it looks as though Anthony had possibly the best fall camp of anyone on the team. But if he struggles, look for Williams to get early playing time. The safeties should be solid with experienced players Sean Cattousse and Chris Conte manning the two spots, so corner is the main position of concern for the Bears. If Hagan can regain his 2008 form and Anthony can translate his great camp over to the field, there is no reason Cal's secondary shouldn't have a solid season.
No one expects much of this team in 2010, and I think that's what makes them the most dangerous. The offense is poised for a breakout season with a senior quarterback and some of the most talented receivers he's had in a while. The offensive line looks like it'll be improved and there is all-conference talent on the D-line and at linebacker. If the two corners step up, the Bears could a pleasant surprise in the Pac-10 this year, especially with the conference being more wide open than it has been in quite some time.
People seem to forget that they return the same amount of starters as Stanford; a team they beat on the road without their most dynamic offensive player last year. Meanwhile, Stanford loses their best offensive player in Toby Gerhart. Despite this, many analysts picked Stanford to defeat Cal in Berkeley this year. While I don't doubt Stanford will be a good team, I have trouble understanding what makes them the favorite against Cal on the road.
Due to predictions like this, Cal will have a chip on their shoulder this coming season and should be well motivated to prove the doubters wrong. This actually looks like one of the most talented Cal teams in the last few years and could upset a few Pac-10 opponents before it's all said and done.
As for a final record, I can't make an exact prediction for how many wins and losses, so I'm going to cheat and say the I predict the Bears will win 7-10 games this year, with 7 being the absolute minimum, and 10 being the very unlikely ceiling. I think 8 or 9 wins a is reasonable expectation for Cal this year, especially with them being the hunter instead of the hunted once again, and while there are plenty of uncertainties on this team, I think that most of them come from players who underachieved last season, and are highly motivated to prove that that was a fluke.