Sept. 5 vs. Maryland
California was embarrassed last season in College Park by the Terrapins. This season, the Golden Bears will be favorites once again, but this time by three touchdowns. There will be no 9 a.m. PT kickoff or 90% humidity this second go around, and redemption will be on the Cal player's minds.
Despite a late ET kickoff, Jahvid Best will put on a performance that will put him on the top five of every Heisman voter's list of candidates, if he wasn't there already. But of greater note, Kevin Riley does just enough to keep the Terp defense honest to respect the pass as Cal rolls to an easy victory.
Prediction: Cal 41, Maryland 17
Sept. 12 vs. Eastern Washington
If there were a date a Cal fan had to attend a September wedding, this would be the day. EWU will be nothing more than a glorified scrimmage. If Best plays beyond halftime, it must be because head coach Jeff Tedford wants him to reach the 400-yard rushing plateau.
Prediction: Cal 56, EWU 0
Sept. 19 at Minnesota
Every year, one non-conference game has Bear fans ask why Cal agreed to play this. Whether it is playing at a non-BCS school or playing on the road early at an East Coast venue, some things just do not make sense to some fans.
Playing the Golden Gophers this year is a return game, but why another 9 a.m. PT kickoff, especially at their brand new on-campus stadium.
Last year, Cal fans wondered whose idea it was to arrive at Maryland less than 24 hrs before a 9 a.m. PT kickoff when the NCAA allows a team to arrive up to 48 hrs before. Tedford says lessons were learned last year, but at about 12:30 p.m. PT on September 19, people are going question if they were.
Minnesota is not a bad football team. The Gophers return a plethora of starters from their 2008 Insight Bowl team. Air Force will open TCF Bank Stadium a week prior in a game broadcast by the Big Ten Network, but all eyes will be on the ESPN televised contest with the now No. 10 ranked Bears.
Despite being better on paper, Cal will have trouble matching the emotion of the Gopher players and their fans in a nostalgic setting. After breezing through the first two games, will the Bears be ready for a battle in humid conditions?
Expect Minnesota, who returns five of seven starters up front, to stack the box to stop Best. The game will fall on Kevin Riley's shoulders. The Bears will not get embarrassed like last season at Maryland, but count on that one loss that makes you question whether Tedford is the man to take Cal to the next level to happen in Minneapolis.
Prediction: Cal 24, Minnesota 26
Sept. 26 at Oregon
With BCS National Championship dreams out the window – as if anyone would predict the Bears to go unbeaten – the Bears can now focus on the real task a Pac-10 Championship.
I fully expect Oregon to be a top 10 team with solid wins over Boise State, Utah and Purdue before entertaining a Cal squad now ranked in the bottom teens. Much like two years ago, when Cal beat the Ducks in Eugene, UO will be clicking on all cylinders.
Proving that last week's loss was an aberration, the Bears play their most complete game in nearly three years. The light finally clicks in Riley's head, and the quarterback reaches the 300-yard passing mark in a Pac-10 game for the first time in his career. Best, on the other hand, has a rather pedestrian day – 90 yards and a touchdown. But in true Best fashion, stats make no difference. Cal is now 1-0 in the Pac-10 and that much closer to the Rose Bowl.
Prediction: Cal 34, Oregon 16
Oct. 3 vs. USC
Despite USC and Cal entering the game with one loss apiece, ESPN Gameday does not pass on the opportunity to take their show on the road to Strawberry Canyon for the first time.
USC is staggers into the contest 3-1 with less than stellar wins over San Jose State, Washington, Washington State, and a tough loss at Ohio State. However, USC has a few key players back in the lineup from injury, including starting receiver Ronald Johnson.
Kirk Herbstreit analyzes the game in Cal's favor stating, "USC has a number of key players back, but it won't make a difference, this is Cal's year to win the Pac-10."
Lee Corso is a bit more antimated as he predicts Cal to roll while putting on the head of Oski in front of a hoard of screaming Cal fans.
The game becomes a heavyweight fight with the Bears and Trojans trading blows through three quarters. But in an unseasonable hot October night in Berkeley, Best is banged up at the end of the third. Herbstreit speculates Best shortage of fall practice time hasn't prepared his body for a physical four-quarter game.
With USC ahead with seven minutes remaining in the game, Best returns to contest after what turned out to be just severe cramping. He is just 20 yards shy of eclipsing 200 yards against the Trojans' vaunted rush defense, but instead of handing him the ball, Tedford calls for a play-action roll out on first down.
Riley, with a defender in his face, makes an ill-advised pass to a double covered Verran Tucker. Taylor Mays, despite hands of stone, makes the interception and races untouched 30 yards until Best chases him down and trips him up at the 15.
Despite the Cal defense limiting USC to just a field goal in the final quarter, Cal's rally falls short with Giorgio Tavecchio, who's 3-for-3 on the night in place of starter Vince D'Amato, missing a 54-yard field on the game's final play.
Prediction: Cal 30, USC 31
Oct. 17 at UCLA
Cal has never won a game in Los Angeles during the Tedford era. After another heartbreaking loss, Bear fans expect a lackluster effort in the Rose Bowl against UCLA following the bye.
Despite a 3-2 record and a falling national ranking, Cal doesn't fold and take its place in the middle of the Pac-10 destined for the Las Vegas Bowl like years past. Best takes hold of the reigns and breaks his 311-yard school rushing record set last season with a 357-yard, 4-touchdown performance against the Bruins.
The Bear defense plays relentless with a huge chip on its shoulder. After giving up over 450 yards of total offense to USC, the Cal defense limits UCLA to a season low 99 yards, including -27 yards rushing.
Prediction: Cal 45, UCLA 3
Oct. 24 vs. Washington State
Cal needs a break and the Cougars are the perfect game to rest some starters after a grueling stretch at Minnesota, at Oregon, vs. USC and at UCLA.
No offense to Coach Paul Wulff, but he might as well bring his former team – EWU – to Memorial Stadium for a second time. WSU is no match for the Bears in this contest.
Best may only get 10-15 carries, but it will be enough for top the 100-yard mark easily. But this is a game where Shane Vereen and Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson will crack the 100-yard mark as well.
Prediction: Cal 48, WSU 6
Oct. 31 at Arizona State
A resurgent 5-2 Cal team, now ranked back in the top 15, will hit a huge speed bump in Tempe.
I don't expect the Sun Devils to have a record better than 4-3 entering this contest, but the ASU should be hitting their stride with their faint bowl hopes on the line. Cal is just 3-8 in October Pac-10 road games under Tedford. The Bears have never won more than two in one season. With a win in Pasadena two weeks earlier, history is against Cal in this contest.
This is one type of game some would expect Cal to lose but not in 2009. Behind a workmanlike 30-carry, 184-yard game, Best leads the charge as the Bears hold off the Sun Devils. More importantly, Oregon beats USC this day, leaving the door open for the Bears to win at least a share of the conference.
Prediction: Cal 34, Arizona State 17
Nov. 7 vs. Oregon State
Cal has lost two straight to the Beavers, including the heartbreaker two years ago in Memorial Stadium. OSU will be no worse than 6-2 and ranked in the top 25 when this game rolls around.
This game will turn heads proving the Bears are a legitimate top 10 team despite their two early losses. Best continues his great run with another near 200-yard effort as the defense smothers the Rodgers brothers (Jacquizz and James). After taking USC to the wire two weeks earlier in Los Angeles, the Beavers are overrun in Berkeley.
In a true statement game, the Bears improve on their tough performance in Tempe to notch their second win over a top 25 team in 2009.
Prediction: Cal 38, Oregon State 14
Nov. 14 vs. Arizona
The 7-2 Bears crack the top 10 for the second time in 2009 on the heels of their 24-point win over nationally ranked Oregon State. Meanwhile, Arizona enters with a respectable 5-3 record with its only setbacks on the road in close losses at OSU, Iowa, and Washington.
In another redemption game, Cal puts on an impressive offensive display while the defense holds the Wildcats to under 200 yards of total offense.
Prediction: Cal 42, Arizona 13
Nov. 21 at Stanford
For the first time since 1991, both teams will enter the Big Game above .500. The Bears will be an 8-2, top 10 team, while I expect the Cardinal to enter with a 6-4 record, 5-0 at home (yes, including an upset win over a ranked Oregon team).
Some national pundits are calling for a Stanford upset.
Cal is a lock for at least a share of the Pac-10 title and its first BCS bowl berth as long as the Bears win out with only a road trip to 3-7 Washington remaining after the Cardinal. Nevertheless, the comparisons are eerily similar to 2006 when the then 8-1 top 10 ranked Bears lost at 4-5 Arizona.
Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh holds nothing back as he attempts to take a series lead over Tedford and secure a bowl bid in the process.
But Best won't let it happen.
As he has shown all season long, he puts the team on his back. And in the process, he has moved into the forefront of the Heisman Race – the only non-quarterback in contention – averaging 186 yards rushing in the last five games.
Prediction: Cal 35, Stanford 10
Dec. 5 at Washington
The 9-2 Cal Bears can do no worse than tie for the Pac-10 title if they take care of business in Seattle. However, with the Arizona-USC outcome still in doubt as Cal-UW kickoff, a berth to the Rose Bowl could be still on the line this late Saturday afternoon.
As they have done much of this season, the Bears handle their business. Cal takes care of what it can control and that is dominating the Huskies.
First-year UW head coach Steve Sarkisian treats the matchup like the Huskies bowl game as a win would give them a rather impressive 5-7 record on the heels of last year's 0-12 campaign.
Best enters the contest just five yards shy of reaching 2,000 yards rushing and 18 shy of breaking J.J. Arrington's school record. After the embarrassment of a defense UW put on the field last year when Best set a Cal rushing record, UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt gameplans to stop Best.
Easier said then done, his plan doesn't work.
On the first play from scrimmage, Best races 80 yards untouched to shatter the Bears' rushing record. With upstart Oklahoma State winning the Big XII South, 2008 Heisman winner Sam Bradford and finalist Colt McCoy are both sitting at home unable to impress voters. Most have declared the Heisman a two-man race between Best and Florida "Superman" Tim Tebow.
At halftime, Best and the Bears learn USC pulled out a victory over Arizona to win the Pac-10. Despite Best rushing for over 150 yards and three scores, Cal is clinging to a modest 10-point lead.
All year long, Best has claimed the Pac-10 title is more important than any individual award. Heisman aside Best accomplishes the real goal for the 2009 season. His 203-yard, 4-touchdown performance means little in comparison to beating UW and claiming a share of the Pac-10 title.
Prediction: Cal 45, Washington 20
Despite dominating the last seven games by an average score of 41-12, and most of the national media claiming Cal is playing the best football of any team in the nation outside of Gainesville, the Bears have no shot to test that claim on the field. Furthermore, based on USC's head-to-head victory over the Bears, the likewise 10-2 (8-1) Trojans earn the Pac-10's spot in the Rose Bowl.
Nonetheless, the Bears are selected to their first BCS Bowl in school history – a Fiesta Bowl date with 12-1, Big XII Champion Oklahoma State. Tebow takes home the Heisman, but Best gets the better bowl matchup as Ohio State "sneaks" into the BCS National Championship game.
While not sexy in name recognition, most analysts declare the 2010 Fiesta Bowl as the best BCS game on the slate.
Well there you have it, my take on the 2009 season. It is nowhere near perfect, but if it plays out, Cal could be a just a 54-yard Tavecchio field goal from playing Florida for the national title. But more appealing, if the voters somehow screw over the Bears, is playing in the Rose Bowl.
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