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

Mr Pac Ten
Posted Aug 22, 2010


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

CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS
Overview:

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. However, there has been a definite drop-off in the last few seasons, and it doesn’t seem especially likely that they will return to elite status in 2010. They should still be a good team, though, and will be a tough out for anyone.

Offense:
Both the running and passing game should be pretty good. The running game does lose star back Jahvid Best, but the line returns largely intact and should be strong, and Shane Vereen looked extremely good taking over after Best’s injury against Oregon St. There aren’t any obviously strong backups here, but Cal has had a history of finding good players, and I’m guessing one of the guys competing for playing time will, as usual, emerge into a capable backup.

The passing is a bit of a question mark, but it should still be good. QB Kevin Riley actually had a pretty solid 2009 season (though he flew under the radar, and he did have some poor games along the way), and now that he’s a senior, it’s highly reasonable to project him to make the same type of improvement that most Pac-10 senior quarterbacks enjoy. He won’t be the best QB in the league, but he should be better than many are projecting. The receiving corps should also be pretty good, returning most of the players that contributed to a solid unit in 2009.

Defense:
The Cal defense should be pretty decent in 2010. The run D should again be a strength, as they were strong in 2009 and return much of their front seven, including star linebacker Mike Mohamed and key contributors Cameron Jordan and Derrick Hill.

The pass defense, however, remains a major question mark. That unit was surprisingly bad in 2009, and loses a lot of key players, including star cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson. In the past, they have been fairly good in pass defense, so they could certainly improve, but it is without a doubt the biggest question mark on this team. If they turn in a showing as bad as 2009 (much less a worse one) this team will struggle again.

Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Oregon. Cal has a good home-field advantage, and has the talent at front seven to potentially contain Oregon’s great run offense. Moreover, the Ducks will be coming off a trip to USC and then a rivalry game against Washington, while the Bears will be coming off of an easier game against Wazzu. The key is whether or not their own offense can put the points on the board. If they can, this is definitely a potential upset.

Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
Losing on the road to teams they’re a touchdown or more favorite against seems to have become the “Jeff Tedford special” the last few years. Washington in 2009 (actually was a 6.5 line), Maryland (14) in 2008, Washington (7), Stanford (13.5) and nearly Colorado St (14) in 2007, and Arizona (13.5) in 2006. That’s one every year, and sometimes more than one (and frequently by well more than a touchdown). That means that Cal fans shouldn’t be too comfortable about their trips to Nevada and Wazzu, even though Nevada has lost seven straight games to AQ teams (and not all good ones) by an average of about 22 points, and the Cougars have been abysmal the last two years.

A home game against ASU, right after games against UCLA and USC and right before a trip to Corvallis, could be a trap game if the Sun Devils can put pressure on Riley and clamp down on Cal’s running game.

Bottom Line:
This should be a good team. Unless the pass defense collapses, there’s enough talent that they should be a consistently tough out and should pull an upset or two along the way. Consistency is always an issue, but this should be an upper-division Pac-10 team, and if they can keep their poor performances to a minimum, they could surprise in 2010.

STANFORD CARDINAL
Overview:

In 2007, Stanford had one of the best 4-8 seasons 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 finally made a bowl game and nearly beat a very good Oklahoma team even without starting QB Andrew Luck. In 2010, they hope to continue building on their success, and maybe even make a Rose Bowl run, though that won’t happen unless they improve more than projected or collect a boatload of breaks.

Offense:
Last year, Stanford was a run-first team, relying heavily on running backs Toby Gerhart, who ended up the second-place Heisman finalist. This year, Gerhart is gone, but they return a number of decently talented backs, and most importantly they return what should be the best offensive line in the pac-10. While they’ll take a step back running the ball, it might not be nearly as much as you think. This may not be the best running game in the league (that should be Oregon or Oregon St), but it won’t be that far off.

But the passing game should take a major step forward in 2010. Not having Gerhart to take the pressure off is a downside, but star quarterback Andrew Luck should improve, and will have a great offensive line to protect him and a solid receiving corps (which returns pretty much intact) to throw to. This may not be the best passing game in the league (that should be Washington, with Arizona and USC also competitors), but again, it won’t be far off. Overall, this is the most balanced offense in the league and could definitely turn into the best overall offense.

Defense:
Unfortunately, defense remains a concern. The run defense should be decent; they got gashed on the ground a few times in 2009 but were overall decent, and their front seven should only be better, with most of the players returning and Owen Marecic moving from offense to defense. Thomas Keiser, Shayne Skov, and Sione Fua should be leaders on defense, and they’ll at least have the potential to improve from merely OK to actually good.

That said, the pass defense remains this team’s glaring weakness. They could be a bit better rushing the passer with star rusher Thomas Keiser returning (though he may rush less now that he’s an LB in the new 3-4), and you’d have to think that the secondary can’t help but improve from last year’s abysmal showing, since three of the four starters are returning. However, it’s still almost certain to remain a major weakness, which isn’t good news against the teams they’ll face that can throw the ball well.

Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Once again, they should be an underdog to USC, though they’ll definitely have a shot in that game.

Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
UCLA. The Bruins should have a good pass defense, and will try to air it out, which attacks Stanford’s biggest weakness. Moreover, Stanford hasn’t won at the Rose Bowl since 1996, a streak that has to be considered at least somewhat meaningful at this point (especially since they also had a better team than UCLA the last time they met there and lost anyway). Washington will be another tough trip as well.

Bottom Line:
This is a team that continues to improve. They should have gotten worse in the running game, but better everywhere else. With a schedule that’s only a bit tougher in 2010 than last year (six road games instead of five), they have a very realistic chance to improve on their record. That said, there are so many tossups and almost-tossups (they shouldn’t beat Oregon, they shouldn’t lose to Sac St, Wake or Wazzu, 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 ten wins, and I’m guessing that they end up with the same 8-4 regular season record as last year.

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

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