June 11, 2009
A random, too-soon look at California's prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. There aren't many personnel losses, but what attrition there is is disconcertingly concentrated in the middle, on both sides: Alex Mack, a two-time All-Pac-10 pick and the first center off the board in April, was a three-year starter alongside right guard Noris Malele on the interior of the offensive line; ditto their veteran counterparts at linebacker, Zack Follett, Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder, who take with them 88 career starts. What Mack was to the offense, Follett was to the D, snapping up a first-team all-conference nod last year for leading the league in tackles for loss, after making the second team in 2007.
That's a lot of muscle lost, replaced on offense by two guys on offense (Chris Guarnero and Justin Cheadle) with a combined three career starts and three new linebackers (Michael Mohamed, Devin Bishop and Mychael Kendricks) with another three. At least all have played to some extent, so it won't be as green in the trenches as it could be.
What's the Same. Statistically, the strength of last year's team was undoubtedly the pass defense, both up front and in the secondary: The Bears were sixth nationally in pass efficiency D, tying for third with 24 interceptions (to just 12 touchdowns) and holding fully half the offenses they faced in the regular season at or below a 50 percent completion rate; most notably, Oregon's Justin Roper and Jeremiah Masoli combined to go 11-of-32 with two interceptions in a loss in Berkeley in October, just a week after UCLA served up four picks in another Bear rout. The Ducks' prolific attack managed all of 16 points (the only other defense that held Oregon below 31 was USC's irresistible band of headhunters) and the Trojans themselves were held to a season-low 17 in L.A. the following week.
That was due in no small part to the pass rush, which consistently got to the quarterback -- it had at least three sacks in eight different games, including three at USC -- and finished in the top-20 in sacks and tackles for loss. Those numbers, like every major number on last year's defense, were the best since (and in some cases better than) the killer '04 D, which was easily the best of the Tedford era. In that respect, it's hard to expect another brush along the ceiling, especially minus the defense's best player, Follett, who led the team in sacks. But every starter is back on the front line, and every starter is back in the secondary, including All-Pac-10 guys at both spots, end Tyson Alualu and corner Syd'Quan Thompson. Along with last year's big change, a shift from the 4-3 to more 3-4 as a base scheme, the holdovers could be good for a repeat performance.
Best Practices = Give it to Best. As good as Jahvid Best is -- as his ridiculous 8.1 per-carry average attests, he's as good with the ball in his hands as anyone you have in mind this year -- it's hard to argue that he should be getting the ball more. It is true that he only had 20 carries twice last year, in the opening win over Michigan State and the spectacular bowl win over Miami; in any games with less than three week's rest, Best averaged a little under 14 carries, a low number for such an obvious game-changing threat.
Considering a) how thoroughly he dominated on limited touches against the worst teams -- 200 yards, 3 TDs on 14 carries against Washington State; 19 carries for 201 and 2 TDs against Stanford; 19 for 311 and 4 TDs against Washington -- and b) his relatively active involvement in the passing and return games, and c) the persistence of talented backup Shane Vereen in getting his own share of touches, there's really only one quasi-complaint you can make about Best's role in the offense:
As I say, it's a quasi-complaint at most, but for the Bear offense to take the "next step" -- both in enduring the challenges from beatable peers like Oregon State and Arizona and in holding their own against a heavyweight like USC -- it seems one of two things has to happen: Either Best (who's had some injury issues) has to evolve into a 20-to-25-carry back who can carry the offense through rough patches without being easily "taken out of the game" by a good defense, or the passing game has to develop the weapons and consistency to loosen the defense and allow their start to continue maximizing the touches he gets.
This was the question I kept having as Best shredded the Hurricanes in the bowl game: Why don't they give him the ball more? Miami didn't come close to stopping, but it did, somehow, manage to take a seemingly one-sided game into the final minute. The answer is that Best, like Reggie Bush, is not that kind of carry-the-load kind of back. The big difference between the kind of fringe top-25 team the Bears were last year and the fringe top-10 team they're widely expected to be this year could be mainly in how much hay they can make on the three-fourths of plays when Best isn't getting the ball.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. Which brings us to ... [minor key -- a woman screams] ... the quarterback. Who that would be, exactly, was still uncertain at the end of spring, though Kevin Riley's incumbent status presumably leaves him as the go-to guy over big, improbably named sophomore Brock Mansion. It's telling that Mansion is even in the discussion: Riley initially beat out another embattled incumbent, senior Nate Longshore, for the job in last year's fall camp, and has 277 career passes to Mansion's six. When the guy with six in that equation is a serious part of the discussion, yes, that is a concern.
Mansion and the even greener Beau Sweeney are there because Riley completed an almost unbelievable 44.4 percent of his passes in Pac-10 games, winning last year's Juice Williams Memorial Trophy for Excellence in Inaccuracy despite a respectable (14:6) touchdown:interception ratio. He flashed almost none of the alleged athleticism (–56 yards rushing for the year) that helped him win the job. He couldn't keep Longshore on the bench. And still, Riley's experience alone seemed to give him the slight edge in the competition in the spring, when Jeff Tedford wasn't exactly handing out gold stars:
"I was really encouraged with their attitude and work ethic," was about as complimentary as Tedford got.
In the same column, the San Jose Mercury News' Jon Wilner guess whoever wins the job only needs to "complete 60 percent of his passes, limit mistakes (especially in the fourth quarter and in the red zone) and make sound decisions" to break through to the Rose Bowl. That may be so, but suggesting Riley can achieve that on a consistent basis, based on last year, is a dramatic leap.
Best-Case. Maryland and Minnesota shouldn't be tests but definitely not threats outside of the conference; the real do-or-die games for the Bears' national ambitions are clearly the back-to-back showdowns at Oregon on Sept. 26 and USC on Oct. 3. Wins in those two games, and Cal is an instant mythical championship contender with a target on its back for the last two months.
I'm not willing to give them the drop on the Ducks and Trojans; a win in Autzen Stadium or over the dominant Pac-10 juggernaut of the decade is a tall enough order in itself. But if Cal can manage to split those games, keep Best healthy and involved and avoid the bizarre upset, it can conceivably run the table to an 11-1 finish. If that's not good enough for their first Rose Bowl visit in 50 years, it will be a compelling case for the elusive at-large bid to one of the other big-money bowls, anyway.
Worst-Case. The run defense is inconsistent. Quarterback is unsettled. And almost no one has been worse the last three years at avoiding the inscrutable upset. At Arizona in 2006; against Oregon State, UCLA, Washington and Stanford in the '07 collapse; at Maryland and Arizona (again) last year -- the Bears are no strangers to blowing apparent wins in unexpected places. That's where Maryland and Minnesota in September are dangerous: A loss to either, followed by an 0-2 effort against Oregon and USC to open the Pac-10 schedule, and the season is basically over before it starts, with trips to UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford still ahead. If Oregon State and/or Arizona gets out of Berkeley with another win, the Bears could drop from the postseason picture altogether at 6-6.
Non-Binding Forecast. Like every other team in the league, Cal starts at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to projections, because Pac-10 supremacy is automatically ceded to Southern Cal. I'm not deviating from that script, and in fact I'm not convinced that Cal is likely to be better than Oregon or Oregon State, which combined to relegate the Bears to fourth place and the fringe of the top-25 last year. And that's without the upsets.
On paper, though, Cal should be at least a slight favorite in every game except USC, which makes it an odds-on contender for an at-large BCS bid. I don't think I'm willing to pencil them into January yet, especially given the parity of the rest of the Pac-10 and the history here of losing to teams a notch below on the food chain. But I would peg the Bears to win at least at least eight games, up to 10, for the sixth time in seven years, which should be good for a top-20 finish. If that's even a little disappointing, it's also a testament to how far Jeff Tedford has brought this one-time jalopy.