CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS
Since Jeff Tedford arrived in 2002, the Cal Bears have had a number of good to very good teams, highlighted by their excellent showing in 2004, when they nearly beat USC in LA, and 2006, where they overcame a lousy showing at Tennessee to end up with a very strong squad. But this year's team may be their best yet during the Tedford era. They have talent, experience and depth pretty much everywhere, and have a few truly special players to lead the team. They'll probably be hampered by some of the issues that have plagued them every year (most notably struggling on the road), but will be an excellent team anyway, and are very capable of ending the year in the top ten.
There's not a whole lot of bad news here, but there are a couple of issues. The first is at offensive line, where they lose a couple of special players in center Alex Mack and guard Noris Malele. That said, the guys that they do have returning are still pretty good. There may not be any stars, and they will have to plug someone in at center, but it should still be a good line.
The second is at receiver, where they lose a couple of decent performers from last year, and don't really have any stars like they had in Desean Jackson a couple years ago. It should still be a decent unit, but it's definitely not going to be the strength of the offense.
The main good news, of course, is at running back, where they're led by star player Jahvid Best, and have a very capable backup in Shane Vereen. With a pretty good line in front of those two, Cal could actually improve on their numbers from last year, which were already outstanding.
Quarterback should also improve. With Nate Longshore gone, Kevin Riley should be more secure in the starting role, and with another year of experience, he should be better. It's hard to see him as a star, but he should still be good, and that's all that they really need.
The real strength of this team, despite their offensive reputation, is the defense. On the line, they have a couple of very good players in Cameron Jordan and 2nd team Pac-10 Tyson Alualu, plus a good tackle in Derrick Hill. If that's not the best line in the league, it's very close. The secondary should also be excellent, led by outstanding cover man Syd'Quan Thompson, plus three other good players at corner, safety and rover. The linebacker corps won't be quite at the same level, since they have to replace three very good players in linebackers Zack Follett, Anthony Felder and Worrell Williams, but they will still have a group of players that look pretty decent. Overall, this defense doesn't have the same sort of upside as USC boasts, but they will still be excellent, and if the Trojans do struggle to replace all of their departing stars, this could very well turn out to be the best defense in the league.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
There's only game that would qualify as a major upset, and that's USC. And given the quality of this team, as well as the fact that it's an early season game against a Trojan team that is breaking in a lot of new players, especially at quarterback, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see them pull it out. Given how much rebuilding Oregon is doing, I think Cal wins that game, but that's not really a major upset.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
Other than their trip to Oregon (losing would not be a huge upset), Cal has four other noteworthy road games: Minnesota, UCLA, Arizona St, and Stanford. Given their track record of consistently struggling on the road against anyone decent, I'm guessing they split these four games.
This should be a very good team. There are obviously a couple question marks, but there's so much talent here that they should be good regardless. Consistency is always an issue, but this should be the second-best team in the Pac-10, and if they can keep their poor performances to a minimum, there's no reason to believe that they can't hit ten wins and an at-large BCS berth.
In 2007, Stanford had one of the best 4-8 season any team in college football has ever had. In 2008, they improved their record by a game, were in a bunch of close contests, and very nearly made a bowl game for the first time in nearly a decade. In 2009, they hope to get to that magic number of six, and finally get back to the postseason. Doing so will be far from easy, and far from certain, but it is definitely possible.
Last year, Stanford was a run-first team, relying heavily on running backs Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble. This year, Kimble is gone, but Gerhart returns, as does most of the offensive line. They were already very good running the ball, and this year they might be even better.
But the real story has to be the passing game. Last year, it was completely awful, with more interceptions thrown than touchdowns, and only breaking 300 yards once, against the lowly Washington St defense. This year, it absolutely has to be better. Fortunately, it should be, as new quarterback Andrew Luck comes in and should certainly be an upgrade over Tavita Pritchard. It's unlikely that he'll come in and shine right away, but just about anything would be an improvement at this point. Moreover, they return their three leading receivers, and have a substantial amount of talent at tight end. The passing game certainly won't be great, but it ought to be decent, and that's a big step forward for this team.
As with the offense, the big story here will be through the air. Last year, Stanford's pass defense was really bad, but this year they should be much improved. They return a pair of very good defensive ends to pressure the quarterback, and they have a much more experienced secondary, which should be boosted by the presence of Richard Sherman, who used to be full-time at wide receiver. Again, this won't be a great unit, but it was a major weakness last year and should at worst only be a minor weakness this time around.
The run defense should again be good, with Ekom Udofia at tackle, Clinton Snyder at linebacker, and a number of other good pieced in the mix. They'll definitely miss Pat Maynor, but with just about all the other linebackers back, they ought to be a bit better in this department.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Stanford ends the season with four straight games that right now no one expects them to win. Other than the game at USC, I think they're very capable of winning any of those.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
Week one road trips can be weird, and Washington St should be improved from last year, despite the heavy personnel losses they've suffered in the offseason. A loss there would definitely be a surprise, but it's possible. Early season home games against much-improved San Jose St and Washington teams could potentially be tougher than expected.
This is a team that continues to improve. They've seriously shored up their major weaknesses, and haven't gotten worse anywhere. With a schedule that's a bit easier than last year (2009 Wake isn't nearly as good as 2008 TCU, and they add two home games, though the Pac-10 as a whole should be better, as should Notre Dame), they have a very realistic chance to reach the magic number of six. That said, there are so many tossups and almost-tossups (they won't beat USC and shouldn't beat Oregon St, they shouldn't lose to SJ St or the Washington schools, but nothing else is close to guaranteed one way or the other) that almost anything is possible. They could easily end up anywhere from five to eight wins, and I'm guessing six.
Questions, comments or suggestions? Email me at email@example.com