With its highest preseason ranking in 50 years, California will look to end its Rose Bowl drought when it opens the season against Air Force on Saturday.
After two years of exceeding expectations under coach Jeff Tedford, the Bears are ranked 13th in the poll, its highest preseason ranking since 1954, when they were No. 12. It’s their best ranking at any time since finishing the 1991 season at No. 8.
A program that won only one game in 2001 and has the longest Rose Bowl drought of any Big Ten or Pac-10 team is finally getting noticed.
“People come up to us and tell us where we’re ranked and how good we’re supposed to be,” said Geoff McArthur, the Bears’ star receiver. “It’s like we’re at a national level now. It’s crazy. Some of the new guys think it’s always been like this. Hopefully we can keep it up because it can easily go back the other way.”
Cal fans are talking about the possibility of making the Rose Bowl for the first time since Joe Kapp led the Bears there after the 1958 season. Instead of convincing his players that they can compete, Tedford’s job this season is making sure the preseason publicity doesn’t go to their heads.
“It’s not what people are expecting of them. It’s what they expect of themselves. That’s the key,” said Tedford, who went 15-11 his first two years. “If we go into this thing worried about what people think about us or what people expect of us, that’s a tough thing to be under all the time. What we expect from each other on a day to day basis, that does matter.”
There’s plenty of reason for optimism for a team that’s looking to put together three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1950-52.
The Bears feature a high-powered offense that averaged 40.6 points per game during a 5-1 stretch to end last season. They return an electric passing duo, with McArthur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
McArthur caught 85 passes for 1,504 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and ranked second in the nation to No. 3 overall NFL draft pick Larry Fitzgerald with 107.4 yards receiving per game.
McArthur will benefit from Rodgers’ experience. The junior college transfer was inconsistent last season despite passing for 2,903 yards and 19 touchdowns. Another year in Tedford’s quarterback-tailored system should help Rodgers show the improvement he needs for Cal to contend with No. 1 Southern California in the Pac-10.
“He really showed a lot of progress by the end of last year,” Tedford said. “His confidence level was evident. He really looked like he had command of the offense.”
The Bears lost some key parts, most notably Adimchinobe Echemandu, who was second in the conference with 1,195 yards rushing last season. J.J. Arrington began camp as the starter but is getting competition from Marcus O’Keith, Terrell Williams and freshman Marshawn Lynch.
Air Force enters the season with a freshman at quarterback, and only six returning starters.
Shawn Carney will be the first Air Force freshman to start a game at quarterback since Dee Dowis started the season finale against BYU in 1986.
“He’s got poise in the pocket, doesn’t get flustered,” Falcons wide receiver Alec Messerall said. “When he sees the defense make mistakes, he’s quick to hit the open man. We’re excited, especially the wide receivers.”
Air Force finished 7-5 last year. Despite losing most of their starters, the Falcons return plenty of veterans with game experience.
Running back Darnell Stephens, a senior who rushed for 604 yards last season, and senior fullback Adam Cole, who rushed for 341 yards, will anchor the backfield. At wide receiver, the Falcons return seniors Alec Messerall and J.P. Waller. Messerall led Air Force in receiving yards last year with 328. Waller was second with 287 yards.
California leads the all-time series 4-2.