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Mr Pac-10's Season Preview: Cal / Stanford

Mr Pac Ten
Posted Aug 25, 2008


Collegefootballnews' Matthew Smith previews the Cal Bears and the Stanford Cardinal.

CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS
Overview:

For all of the public perception that Cal is a pass-first team led by an offensive genius coach, the truth seems to be that the Bears are at their best when get good line play and good defense. If that’s the case, this year’s version should be pretty darn good, despite losing just about everyone who ever caught a pass for them, plus a workhorse running back in Justin Forsett.

Offense:
Well, the good news is that they could have a good running back in Jahvid Best, and they will have a good line for him to run behind. Actually, it’s really the line that is going to be the big strength of the offense, despite having to replace a couple of guys. It seems like Alex Mack has been around forever, and he’s once again going to be the anchor of the line. Tepper and Malele are proven contributors, and the other two spots should be filled in well enough to make the unit as a whole very strong.

The bad news, however, is the passing game. Cal lost a lot of talented receivers from 2007, and now they have to rebuild with guys who have potential but haven’t done anything much yet. And quarterback continues to be a source of concern as well. You have to think that QB play will improve, but “improved” might not mean “good.”

Defense:
The defense looks to be pretty good. No, the numbers weren’t great last year, but with so many key players returning, there should be a big improvement. The linebacker corps looks to lead the way, as they’ve got a great trio of seniors to anchor the defense against the run. The pass defense won’t be quite as good, as they need to find a pass rush and have to replace a few guys in the secondary, but should still be strong.

Potentially Huge Upset Win:
There’s only game that would qualify as a major upset, and that’s the late season trip to USC. That’s a tough mountain to climb, but if the Bears get more consistent quarterback play, and if USC really isn’t as good as usual this year, it’s definitely possible.

Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
Games against Michigan St and Maryland will be tough, and a split seems very possible. But the one that stands out at me is Washington St. The Bears are going to be focused on the Spartans and Terps, and could be vulnerable to an easy season road trip to a nasty environment and a veteran team with something to prove.

Bottom Line:
This should be a pretty good team. There are obviously question marks, and you have to worry about the potential for a repeat of last year’s stunning losing streak, but overall they still look very good. Knocking off USC will be too much for a team with a one-sided offense (and the wrong side at that), but there’s no reason why these guys can’t make a serious run at 2nd place. If they can sweep the non-conference slate as well, an at-large BCS invite is a possibility.

STANFORD CARDINAL
Overview:

Stanford’s 2007 season may have been the best 4-8 season any team in college football has ever had. Keyed by a historic upset of USC, Stanford enjoyed a number of big moments last year. The question is, can they avoid the awful moments, like the blowout losses to UCLA, Oregon, ASU and Oregon St? With returning starters in virtually every position, you have to like their chances to improve, though a road-heavy schedule may make it difficult it to be felt in terms of numbers of wins.

Offense:
Stanford is a passing team. Year in, year out, they throw the ball. Everyone knows that. But not this year, it looks like. Led by a veteran offensive line and a group of talented running backs, 2008 looks like the year when the Cardinal finds its offense primarily through the ground. Alex Fletcher will key the line, and between a few other proven performers and a talented transfer from Oklahoma, this looks like the first time in a while that Stanford’s offensive line will be a strength instead of a weaknes. And if Toby Gerhart can stay healthy this year (he ended up with a medical redshirt last year), Stanford’s running game could become legitimately good.

They’ll have to be, though, because the passing game doesn’t look so great. It seems as if they’ve got the whole student body trying out for quarterback, and while Pritchard seems likely to be the guy, it’s not like he’s been a great performer in the past (USC game notwithstanding). There’s real potential for there to be a season-long QB competition, which is never a good thing. Adding to the trouble is a wide receiver corps with a good catcher in Richard Sherman and not a whole lot else. Losing Mark Bradford and Evan Moore (even if they were injured more often than not) drains a lot of talent and production from the passing game, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to replace that production.

Defense:
It’s been a while since Stanford had a good defense; 2004 was good but that’s been it since Willingham left. It’s unlikely that Stanford will turn out a strong unit here, but they ought to be pretty decent, which will be a step forward from last year.

The big strength on defense is definitely the linebackers. These aren’t all-stars, but they’re all experienced, and they’re all good. Ekom Udofia has done a good job at tackle in the past, and should continue to improve. Great teams will still run on them, but they should have a lot more success against everyone else.

The pass D is a bit less impressive. They return three of four starters in the secondary, but they’ll miss corner Nick Sanchez, as they lack a go-to guy in coverage. Egboh has been good at end, but they’re going to need more pressure against opposing quarterbacks if they want to stop good passing teams.

Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Last year I thought TCU was a potential upset victim, and to be honest I think they are again this year. Yes, it’s on the road, but the Frogs need to get consistent QB play, and their defense isn’t as dominant as it used to be. Honestly, I think that Stanford has a great chance of splitting their road games against TCU and Notre Dame, and my gut says this is the place they get the win.

Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
At this point, San Jose St is the only qualifier, and I just don’t see it. The Spartans’ linebackers are gutted, their quarterback is gone, and they’re usually terrible on the road.

Bottom Line:
Stanford is pretty clearly not on the level of the Pac-10’s better teams. That said, this is a feisty group that will be a tougher out than they’ve tended to be of late, and has the potential to make a run at bowl eligibility. They’ll probably fall short, but they’ll win enough to keep hope alive until some time in November.

Questions, comments or suggestions? Email me at cfn_ms@hotmail.com

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