Is Cal Ready for Primetime?

This is a very important year for the California football program. Many preseason publications have Cal ranked as a top15 team. The Bears get USC at home in a year that the Trojans are in transition. Cal has a legitimate Heisman candidate in Jahvid Best. Is this the season that the Bears finally break through and make a BCS game?

The California Golden Bears have won four consecutive bowl games since falling short of a Bowl Championship Series bowl game berth in 2004.

The Las Vegas, Holiday, Armed Forces, and Emerald Bowl wins have not suppressed the emotions of being left out of the BCS game. If a 10-1 season, where the only loss was a last minute defeat at eventual national champion USC, was not enough, Cal must leave no doubt this season to earn a berth to a BCS bowl game.

Cal was regulated to the Holiday Bowl in 2004 losing a lackluster game to Texas Tech. The Bears won a share of the Pac-10 title in 2006 but also played in the Holiday Bowl, blowing out Texas A&M. That is the echelon of Cal's bowl appearances in the Jeff Tedford era. The next step for this program is making the Rose Bowl or another BCS game. Since 2003, Cal fans have been waiting for the Bears to beat USC – again – and take home an outright Pac-10 title.

In our opinion, one of the reasons the Bears have not gone to the next level is they seem to be tripped up by less talented teams. We can start as early as 2002, Coach Tedford's first season. After blowing out No. 15 Michigan State, 46-22, on the road, the newly 23rd ranked Bears lose to Air Force at home the next week.

In 2005, after suffering their first loss at No. 20 UCLA, the No. 18 5-1 Bears lost at home to a 3-2 Oregon State team that was 0-2 against top 25 teams heading into the contest. Cal finished the year 7-4 before beating BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.

In 2006, the Bears were No. 9 in the preseason AP Poll. They were expected to contend for the Pac-10 and possibly a national title. However, Cal laid an egg on national TV in the season opener as a three-point favorite.

No. 23 Tennessee, coming off a 5-6 season, manhandled Cal in the '06 opener. The 35-18 final score was not indicative of the Bears' poor performance. Cal fell to No. 22, but the Bears rebounded to win eight consecutive games. They rose to No. 8 in the polls and were in position to win the Pac-10 title outright as the conference's only unbeaten team in league play. With three games remaining at Arizona, at USC, and Stanford, even if Cal lost to the Trojans, the Bears could finish no worse than tied for first in the Pac-10 as long as they beat 4-5 Arizona and winless Stanford.

Cal entered Tucson as a 13.5 favorite but left a 24-20 loser. Despite the loss, Cal still had a chance at the Rose Bowl if they beaten No. 4 USC. The Bears led 9-6 at the half in the Coliseum, but they were outscored 17-0 in the second half. Nonetheless, UCLA would upset USC in the season finale giving the Bears a share of the Pac-10 title by default. All Cal fans could do but was look back as the loss to Arizona cost the Bears an outright Pac-10 title and a coveted trip to the Rose Bowl.

In 2007, the Bears started the year 5-0 rose to the No. 2 spot in the AP Poll before falling at home to unranked 3-3 Oregon State, 31-28. With starter Nate Longshore out, backup quarterback, Kevin Riley infamously ran the ball deep into OSU territory with no timeouts left. The loss snapped a 10-game home winning streak and started an awful 1-6 finish to the regular season.

Last season, the unranked Bears started strong breaking into the top 25 after a win over Michigan State and a resounding blowout of Washington State. But Maryland, which lost to MTSU the week prior, beat Cal handily the following week. The loss to the Terps could be attributed to many reasons: the early start, high temperature and humidity, or simply the Bears lack of preparedness. A mid-season loss at Arizona was another reminder that the Bears were not ready to contend for anything beyond a mid-level bowl last season.

This year, Cal is receiving a lot of preseason exposure. Phil Steele ranks the Bears No. 9 in his preseason publication. Athlon ranks the Bears No. 11, while Lindy and the Sporting News rank them No. 12 and No. 21, respectively. All the publications predict Cal to finish second in the Pac-10 behind USC, save TSN, which predicts the Bears to finish third behind USC and Oregon. Furthermore, running back Jahvid Best, cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, and punter Bryan Anger are receiving preseason All-American honors with Best mentioned as a Heisman Trophy favorite.

Maryland is the season opener at home in a September 5 nationally televised game on ESPN2. Cal was unbeaten at home last season, and the Bears are unbeaten in home openers under Tedford. This will be the third straight year Cal has opened the season with a BCS opponent at home. After a home tilt with FCS Eastern Washington, the Bears travel to Minneapolis to tangle with Minnesota in their brand new on-campus stadium. When the Bears face the Golden Gophers, it will be an early start – September 19 at 9 a.m. PT – on ESPN/ESPN2.

Last year's Maryland game was also a 9 a.m. kickoff. After going through that experience, California should deal with the early start differently this year. And like last season, this is a game Cal could lose if not prepared. This will be a very important contest for the Bears. A road victory in a nationally televised game over a team from the Big Ten Conference would earn the Bears some needed national respect. Despite the Big Ten's lackluster performance in bowl games, it is perceived as an elite conference. Since 2002, the Big Ten has sent two teams to BCS games in the same year four times. This is something that the Pac-10 should be able to accomplish regularly but does not.

The biggest game on the schedule is easily the October 3 contest with USC. Cal gets the Trojans at home in what could be arguably the biggest nationally televised game at Memorial Stadium. The 8 p.m. eastern ABC primetime slot will set the stage. Most of the top recruits in the 2010 recruiting class don't recall Cal's 34-31 3OT win six years ago. After all, they were still in grade school.

The Bears will face a USC team breaking in a new quarterback under center. Either Aaron Corp or Matt Barkley will start against California. By then, Corp/Barkley will have enough games under his belt to quell any big game jitters. However, the Bears arguably have the best defense they have had in the Tedford era. For Cal to get over the hump and reach a BCS game, it must prevail at home against the Trojans.

If the Bears can start the year 5-0, then it will be about maintaining thier focus for the rest of the season something they were not able to do in 2005 and 2007. A 5-0 start this season should result in the Bears cranking the top five in the polls by mid-October. If they put themselves in that position, Tedford and company must finish the job.

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