The Best Time of the Year

<p class=txt>Was it just a few years ago, that this time of year meant being dragged off by Mom to back-to-school sales and hoping to find that right set of clothing that would create a small measure of notice without generating sympathy.</p>

And every once in awhile, it meant new schools, new buses, new friends, different classes and different teachers. While at one point, the start of the academic year and all its impending uncertainty might have been cause for trepidation, there's a moment in life when one exchanges the uncertainty for opportunity, the trepidation for anticipation and the autumn becomes a time of renewal, providing a chance for reinvention that January could never offer.

As we move on with life, the angst associated with the start of the school year passes on - first to brothers and sisters and then on to sons and daughters. But for hundreds of thousands of people, this time of the year will always mark the start of the new year as they gather on Saturdays - from Knoxville to Pullman, from Ann Arbor to Berkeley - hoping that with one kickoff, a new beginning will take place - leading to a change of fortune, respectability, postseason play, or maybe even an opportunity for a conference or national championship.

For Cal fans, not having been to a Rose Bowl since the Eisenhower administration, and missing by the skin of their teeth once during the Ford administration and once during the Bush administration, it's common to go into the season not knowing what to expect. There's always the hope that the team will be a little bit better than last year, a few players will emerge as stars, and sometime during the course of the season that they can upset, if not scare the life out of, a top 20 team.

Sometimes the team will flat out surprise us, as they did when they put up basketball numbers against Pacific and Baylor on opening day. But even when the team being soundly beaten by Alabama and Miami, supporters could take consolation in the debut and emergence of new players, who would tantalize us early with flashes of skill and then blossom into major talents who would help lead the team to some of its finest moments in recent years.

Going into last season, many cynics might have thought that the first game might have been the only game that the Bears definitely had a chance to win - but as they scored touchdown after touchdown that afternoon, the gloom that had shadowed Memorial Stadium for years dissipated in less then one half. Under the stewardship of Head Coach Jeff Tedford, the team threw in a few offensive wrinkles and played with a greater amount of discipline. In three consecutive weeks the defense played the nation's top receiver in Charles Rogers, one of the nation's most dangerous option teams in Air Force and one of the wilder passing attacks in Washington State - and kept the team competitive in all three games. Perhaps the most impressive statistic of last season was that all of Cal's losses were by 11 points or less - a tribute to the coaching staff's ability to keep the team focused - in one of the Pac-10's wildest offensive seasons ever.

Yet for all of last year's success, many of the preseason prognosticators are acting as if last year never happened. With high turnover on offense and defense, the Golden Bears are expected to do about as well - if preseason magazines written in the spring are to be believed - as everyone expected them to do at the beginning of last year.

While Kyle Boller and Joe Igber have departed, their departure provides an opportunity. An opportunity that over the years has been filled by players such as Olszewki, Jensen, Kapp, Bartkowski, Muncie, Rivera, Jones, Roth, Walker, Nickerson, Moen, White, Pawlawski and Carter; players who became legends because of careers, seasons, games, or even one Play.

For many of us, this Saturday will mark our equivalent of the dropping of the ball in Times Square; a new start of a season of hope, a chance for new heroes to emerge, and knowing that at many points along the way, the culmination of hours and hours of practice will manifest themselves into moments that will inspire and delight us, and make us rise from our seats and yell our heads off.

It's football time again.

Team Logo California (4-4 2002, 7-5 Pac 10) This Week: vs. Kansas State, 8/23
Last Week:
Key Stats: 2,10, 2, 11, 11 - Cal's losing margins in 2002
The only other Pac-10 school to have all of their losing margins smaller than Cal was USC - which lost by seven points and three points. During the middle of the season four consecutive weeks, the Bears had to contend with Air Force's option attack, then the conference's three top QBs in Jason Gesser, Cody Pickett, and Carson Palmer. While the defense wasn't invincible - it would have been reasonable to expect some sort of flat effort in those string of games, especially with a new coaching staff and having to keep a defensive unit up for four straight weeks. Yet the Bears were in all four games, and with a little luck could have won all four. The Bears schedule isn't quite as gruesome this year, with Southern Cal and Oregon State being home games in late September/early October and back-to-back road games at Arizona State and Oregon in November.


Team Logo Kansas State (11-2 2002, 6-2 Big 12) This Week: vs. California, 8/23
Last Week:
Key Stat: QB Ell Roberson, Sr., 1580 yds. passing, 1032 yards running, 23 total TDs
It's a little hard to know what to make of Roberson's numbers because six games were against fairly bad teams (Baylor, Missouri, Kansas, Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Monroe, and Eastern Illinois). Against the good teams they played, Kansas State's passing stats - with most attempts made by Roberson - generally weren't all that good (28 att/11 comp/215 yds. vs. Arizona State, 18/7/102 vs. Texas, 14/5/83 vs. Colorado, 22/13/159 vs. USC). However, Roberson average 17.4 yards per completion, which is very high for any quarterback at any level.


Team Logo Arizona (4-8 2002, 1-7 Pac 10) This Week: vs. Texas-El Paso, 8/30
Last Week:
Key Stat: 43.8 yds/game rushing, 117th in the nation
When a team's leading rusher gained 341 yards and averaged 3.2 yards per carry, that can't be a good sign, no matter how prolific the quarterback is.  Last year, the Wildcats had respectable rushing totals in three of their first four games, but against North Texas, Northern Arizona, and Wisconsin. Against the teeth of the Pac-10 schedule, Arizona's ground game was useless. The Wildcats did throw for nearly 3500 yards last year, but half of those yards came in four games. Fortunately for Cal fans, WR Bobby Wade and QB Jason Johnson will not be returning this year.


Team Logo Arizona State (8-6 2002, 5-3 Pac 10) This Week: vs. Northern Arizona, 8/30
Last Week:
Key stat: In his 10 starts, QB Andrew Walter averaged 348.4 yards passing.
Walter started in the fifth game of the year, yet still managed to end the season with 3,877 yards which was the third highest total in Pac-10 history. As the passing game became increasingly proficient, they gave up on the running game, gaining only 400 yards during their final eight games.  The Sun Devils will be returning four of their five offensive linemen. The ASU defense surrendered more than 30 points on seven occasions last year - and that was with Terrell Suggs.


Team Logo Oregon (7-6 2002, 3-5 Pac 10) This Week: at Mississippi St., 8/30
Last Week:
Key stat: In seven out of eight conference games, Oregon gave up more than 275 yards passing.
We'll have to leave it to the Duck cognoscenti to find optimism in the return of three starters in their defensive secondary. The conference went pass-happy last year, but Oregon's pass defense was easily the worst in Pac-10 play surrendering 291 yards a game and 35 touchdowns. In past years, this could have been overlooked when the offense was blasting teams away. But even good years by Jason Fife (2752 yds passing) and Onterrio Smith (1141 yds rushing) couldn't keep the team from losing six of its last seven games.


Team Logo Oregon State (8-5 2002, 4-4 Pac 10) This Week: vs. Sacramento State, 8/30
Last Week:
Key stats: 3313 yds, 1690 yds, and 1284 yds
Oregon State is one of two Pac-10 schools that's returning its leading passer (Derek Anderson), rusher (Steven Jackson), and receiver (James Newson). The Beaver offense is physicaly huge - the line will go just about 300 lbs. a man across the line, the quarterback is 6-6, and Jackson's a load at 6-3 229. Anderson was the only Pac-10 starter to complete less then 50% of his passes is 2002 - and he only completed more than 50% of his passes once in the last 10 games. The Beavers will benefit by having seven home games - their September 20th game against Boise State will be a good test of how strong their defense will be.


Team Logo Stanford (2-9 2002, 1-7 Pac 10) This Week: vs. San Jose State, 9/13
Last Week:
Key stat: only one of Stanford's nine losses last year was by less than 10 points.
If a team has a series of years of fair-to-middling success and all of a sudden has an extremely down year, one looks for indicators that the season was an aberration - a few close losses, an abnormally high turnover ratio or an injury to a key player who'll be returning in full health. None of those turned out to be the case - the only close conference losses were 28-18 to UCLA, and a 31-21 loss to Oregon State where the Cardinal were outgained 518 to 275. Following the San Jose State home opener, the Cardinal go on the road to face BYU, Washington, and Southern Cal, followed by a home game against Washington State and a game at Oregon. Don't expect many of those games to be decided by less than 10 points either.


Team Logo UCLA (8-5 2002, 4-4 Pac 10) This Week: vs. Colorado, 9/6
Last Week:
Key stat: Tyler Ebell, 994 yards rushing, 10 TD
Any time a freshman nearly gains 1,000 yards in conference play, especially on a team that had it's passing game fizzle out on them halfway through the season, he's worthy of keeping an eye on. Supposedly the idea is to get him the ball more as a receiver and improve upon his 12 receptions of last year. Or at least find to find a way to get him 6 more yards than last year. It doesn't appear thus far that a leader has emerged in the QB competition between Drew Olson and Matt Moore and it'll be curious to see if head coach Karl Dorrell will continue to rotate quarterbacks throughout the season. WR Tab Perry has been declared academically ineligible for the 2003 season. 


Team Logo USC (11-2 2002, 7-1 Pac 10) This Week: at Auburn, 8/30
Last Week:
Key Stat: WR Mike Williams, So., 81 catches, 1265 yards, 14 TD, 6'5", 219 lbs.
There had to be 9 sets of Pac-10 fans who hoped that Williams would have turned professional after his freshman year.   He's tall, quick, and darned near unguardable at times. While he won't have the benefit of having Carson Palmer (3942 yards, 33 TDs) throwing to him, it appears that Matt Leinart will win the QB starting position out of fall practice, fending off challenges from Matt Cassel, Brandon Hance and John David Booty. The opener at Auburn will be one of top games of the early season; last year Auburn defeated USC 24-17 in Los Angeles to open the season.


Team Logo Washington (7-6 2002, 4-4 Pac 10) This Week: at Ohio State, 8/30
Last Week:
Key Stat: Maurice Clarett, 1237 yards, 16 touchdowns, $6100 inflated stolen goods, 1 questionable oral exam
Between the investigation into the cloud of smarminess hanging over Clarett and him being out of shape, it's unlikely that the Huskies will have to face Clarett. Even with OSU returning all 11 offensive starters, they'll have their hands full against the Husky defense. Washington's run defense was strong last year, allowing more than 150 yards just twice last year, and holding six team (including USC) uder 100 yards rushing.  Should Clarett be cleared for the Washington game, the SEC may issue an invitation to Ohio State to join them in 2004.


Team Logo Washington State (10-3 2002, 7-1 Pac 10) Next Week: vs. Idaho, 8/30
Last Week:
Key Stat: QB Matt Kegel, Sr.,40 att., 27 comp, 211 yds, 1 TD, 1 Int
With the departure of QB Jason Gesser (3408 yds, 18 TD), it falls onto the Mark Rypien-sized Matt Kegel to keep the spearhead the Cougar juggernaut. Kegel's thrown well in August scrimmages, going 14-for-14 in one, and 10-for-16 with three drops in another. With early games at Colorado and at Notre Dame, Kegel's learning curve will be steep. In a strange bit of scheduling, the game is being played in Seattle even though both colleges are less then 10 miles apart clear on the other side of the state. Top Stories