2005 Look Ahead: Cal

As we count down in reverse chronological order Stanford's 2005 fall opponents, we quickly arrive to the game circled on Cardinalmaniacs' calendars every year: Big Game. After seven years of The Axe at Stanford, Cal has become comfortable with a quick turnaround of three straight wins over their rivals. Jeff Tedford lost big talents from the 2004 team but has horses a-plenty again in '05.

California Golden Bears

First Down: Quick Hitters

California @ Stanford - November 19 (4:00 PT, ABC)

Last Meeting: Cal 41, Stanford 6 ('04)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Cal/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 5/10
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game: 257/81
2004 Passing Yards Per Game: 236/246
Returning Defensive Starters: 3/5
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 83/143
2004 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 238/249
2004 Record: 10-2/4-7
Vegas' Predicted 2005 Record: 8-3/4-7

Second Down: Offense

Of all Stanford's 2005 opponents, Cal is by far the toughest to peg this upcoming season.  The uncertainty begins at the premier position on the field, where two candidates are deadlocked in the race for signal-caller.  Joseph Ayoob is a 6'3" 215 lb. junior college transfer whom many had assumed would be the next great Jeff Tedford quarterback after Aaron Rodgers' early entry into the 2005 NFL Draft.  However, a strong spring and summer have propelled the slightly larger 6'5" 230 lb. redshirt freshman Nate Longshore into a dead heat with Ayoob.  Cal should be a double-digit favorite in their first five, and possibly eight, games, so Tedford has the option of giving both quarterbacks playing time initially, while settling on a starter in time for the meat of schedule.

No matter who ends up at the quarterback, unless his name is Clark Kent, the Bears figure to suffer a decline in the passing game.  First of all, Cal's top three receivers from last year, Geoff McArthur, Chase Lyman and Garrett Cross, all depart after combining for 16 touchdowns and over 1,600 yards receiving last year.  The Bears do welcome to Berkeley two of the nation's top wide receiver recruits, true sophomore LSU and JUCO transfer Lavelle Hawkins and true freshman DeSean Jackson, but asking them to match last year's production is a nearly impossible task.

Second, Aaron Rodgers' junior season was once-in-a-generation phenomenal.  Surrounded by significantly less talent than Matt Leinart at USC, Rodgers put up comparable numbers to the Heisman winner – 24 TDs, only 8 INTs, an otherworldly 66% completion rate and, in the backyard of the toughest team in the country, an NCAA-record 23 straight completions in a heartbreaking loss to the Trojans.  At both the throwing and receiving ends, Cal is trading proven production for talented potential in the passing game.  Bear backers will just have to wait to see how seamlessly the team adjusts.

The outlook is much more positive in the running game, which again figures to be one of the best in the country.  Spelling J.J. Arrington last year, tailback Marshawn Lynch's lethal combination of power and speed propelled him to 645 yards and 8 touchdowns, remarkably on only 71 carries.  That's nearly nine yards per carry and a touchdown every nine touches.

The unspoken heroes on this Bear team, however, should again be the offensive linemen.  Four starters return from a line that yielded only 25 sacks and plowed the way for 257 rushing yards per game and 6.1 yards per carry – easily the top mark in the nation.

Three years in a row now Cal rushers have topped 1,000 yards.  Considering the returning offensive line talent, the plethora of newcomers in the passing game and the fact that Marshawn Lynch almost reached four-digit yardage as a backup last year, a healthy Lynch could make a strong push for 2,000 yards and the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation's top running back.

Third Down: Defense

Cal returns just three starters from a defense that carried the Bears within one play of the Orange Bowl.  How well the old and new talent meshes will determine the fate of this defense.

Nowhere are the losses heavier than in the front seven, the strength of a defense that allowed only 83 yards on the ground per game last year.  First Team All Pac-10 DE Ryan Riddle paced the conference with 14.5 sacks last year; this year he's an Oakland Raider.  Riddle is hardly the only loss, as all told, Cal lost six of seven starters and an extraordinary 31.5 of 37 sacks from last year. (By means of comparison, the entire Stanford defense posted only 30 sacks last season.)  While the incoming talent, bolstered by three JUCO transfers, is highly regarded, stopping the run is yet another area where the Bears will be forced to trade on-field production for potential.

Conversely, the pass defense looks to transform from a weakness in 2004 to a strength this season.  Both starting corners return and 2003 standout strong safety Donnie McCleskey finally looks healthy after sitting out the 2004 campaign with a bum shoulder.  At 5'10" McCleskey will far and away be the shortest starter on a secondary that figures to average nearly 6'2" tall and boast a combined 61 starts.  After yielding nearly 250 passing yards per game last season, the secondary should become this defense's strength, playing comfortably in one-on-one coverages and allowing the front seven to blitz mercilessly.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Last year's 41-6 Cal shellacking was the biggest Big Game margin since 1930.

- Under head coach Jeff Tedford, Cal is 3-0 against Stanford, averaging a 33-10 final margin.

- As much as Tedford, who signed a five-year extension this off-season, is viewed a quarterback guru and offensive wizard, he might ultimately be remembered for bringing drastically improved line play to Cal.  Last year, the Bears outrushed opponents by over a 3-1 margin, and averaged 6.1 yards per offensive carry while yielding less than half of that defensively at just 2.7 yards per carry.

- DeSean Jackson enters Cal as the #1 wide receiver recruit in the 2005 national recruiting class and prominently chronicled in Sports Illustrated's feature on the top high school athletic programs in the country.  The Long Beach Poly graduate told the magazine he chose Cal in part for its academic reputation.

- Cal's schedule is one of the most backloaded in the country.  After an opening sequence that any top-50 team should sweep (Sacramento State, @ Washington, Illinois, @ New Mexico State, Arizona), the middle three games get slightly tougher (@ UCLA, Oregon State, Washington State).  Following a bye, Cal's next two games should be their toughest this season (@ Oregon, USC) before the Big Game.

- From an optimistic Cal fan's perspective, the order of this schedule is ideal.  The rush offense and pass defense alone should allow the Bears to cruise through September and October while tinkering with their quarterback(s), wide receivers and defensive front seven.  Come November, Cal should still stand undefeated and will be in the best possible shape to do battle with expected league heavies Oregon and USC.

- From an optimistic Stanford fan's perspective, the order of this schedule is also ideal.  If Vegas is to be believed, Cal will easily win their first eight and drop their next two in heartbreaking fashion.  If this scenario plays out, the Bears would be thinking Pasedena and the Rose Bowl heading into November, before thinking San Diego and the Holiday Bowl heading into the Stanford contest just two short weeks later.  After their dream season evaporated last year when they were snubbed by the Rose Bowl, Cal tanked in their next game – a two-touchdown loss to a far inferior Texas Tech squad.  Might Stanford benefit from a similarly uninspired Cal performance if Oregon and/or USC ruin the Bears' perfect season?

- While the national cognoscenti are viewing this as a rebuilding (read: down) season for Cal and have tempered expectations accordingly (preseason #19/20), I think those expectations are way too pessimistic.  There's no way this team will lose more than three games with that schedule, so while the team is probably around #20 in terms of talent, I'll be putting them somewhere in the #10 to #15 range.  Remember, only two minor upsets separate this team from the Rose Bowl.

- Personally, I think this season is even more important than the last for Cal.  The team is stuck squarely at a crossroads.  Any top-10 squad figures to lose a ton of talent in the ensuing off-season, and Berkeley has experienced just that.  However what separates the perennial top-10 squads from the teams that are just flashes in the pan is how a program responds to a mass exodus.  Teams like Michigan, USC, Georgia and Oklahoma simply retool and compete for conference and national titles the next season, while teams like Oregon State, Oregon, Illinois and Colorado simply drop off the radar after their BCS seasons. (Yes, each of those eight programs have played in BCS bowls.)  Is Cal an Oklahoma or an Oregon State: can they sustain their excellence?  This year will tell.

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