2006 Look Ahead: Cal

Our hugely popular summer series previewing Stanford's fall football schedule is back. We count down the 2006 slate starting with an opponent not to be seen until... December? Big Game has been moved two weeks past its normal slot, but it still remains in a primary position in the consciousness of Cardinal fans. What do the Bears bring to the field this fall? Plenty on both sides of the ball...

California Golden Bears

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ California - December 2

Last Meeting: Cal 27, Stanford 3 ('05)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Cal/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 7/10
2005 Yards Per Point: 13.0/12.9
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game: 235/92
2005 Yards Per Carry: 5.8/2.6
2005 Passing Yards Per Game: 193/224
2005 Pass Completion Rate: 52.0/61.4
Returning Defensive Starters: 8/6
2005 Yards Per Point Allowed: 17.0/14.4
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 119/156
2005 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.3/4.0
2005 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 240/286
2005 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 55.9/60.8
2005 Record: 8-4/5-6

Second Down: Offense

It all starts on the ground for Cal, who sports one of the best running back units in the country.  Junior Justin Forsett ran for 999 yards with a rushing style that some compare to Barry Sanders – and he was the backup.  Junior starter Marshawn Lynch ran for 1246 yards last year en route to Pac-10 honors, and incoming frosh James Montgomery is a premier recruit at the tailback position.  Cal ran for 6.1 yards per carry with J.J. Arrington at the helm in 2004, and that total only dropped to 5.8 last year, despite a far weaker passing game that allowed defenses to tee off on the run.  Some say the Pac-10 isn't as physical as other conferences – far be it from me to agree or disagree – but I will say that Cal has physically dominated opposing defenses these past few seasons, and that trend should continue this year.

Or maybe not.  The unsung heroes keying the rushing attack, of course, are the hogbellies up front.  And with only two starters – senior left guard Erik Robertson and senior left tackle Scott Smith – returning to the unit, perhaps opponents will finally see a chink in the armor.

While I'd expect the run game to hold steady, the passing attack looks to be much improved.  With Steve Levy, the hero of the Stanford game, in legal trouble, looks like Joe Ayoob and Nate Longshore remain in the picture to lead the offense.  Longshore, a Top 20 quarterback recruit out of high school with a 6-5, 230 frame, missed all last season but the first half of the season opener against Sacramento State with an ankle injury.

His return to form can only mean good things for Cal, especially considering the shoddy play out of Ayoob last season.  Too often Joe the Boob and too infrequently Booya Backwards – I know, I know, I'm stretching it here, but the stats don't lie.  And a 49.2% completion rate with nearly as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns (14) is hard to explain away when standout sophomore receiver DeSean Jackson lived up to the hype as the top-billed true freshman in the country last year.  Jackson snagged 601 yards and seven touchdowns, but he can only do so much.  With returning starter Robert Jordan, a junior, and Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 tight end Craig Stevens rounding out the receiving corps and a rushing game that looks as strong as ever, the table is set for either Ayoob or the probable starter Longshore to succeed.  They'll have to, because a repeat of last year would be inexcusable with their offensive talent.

The offense will have a new head man this year as Mike Dunbar takes the offensive coordinator reins after four successful years holding down the post at Northwestern, where he tormented Big 10 defenses with a powerful running attack out of the spread offense.  Maybe the defenses on the West Coast are faster than those in the heartland, but if Dunbar can open up holes for Lynch half the size of those he regularly opened for his backs in Evanston, watch out.

Third Down: Defense

Last year, the unit bent far more than it broke, allowing teams to move 360 yards per game but only average 21 points per contest.  The 17 yards per point comes on the heels of 21 yards per point in 2004 and 16 in 2003.  All those numbers are far higher than average, which is about 13 or 14, and is the signature of a fundamentally sound defense.

And this year, Cal should be able to put those fundamentals to use to forge one of the strongest defenses in the country, and probably the stingiest in the league or on Stanford's schedule.  Experience will be a boon as five of the six top linebackers, both corners and eight on the defensive line who have started at Berkeley return this year.

All told, eight starters return to a unit where the biggest (and perhaps only) question will be at safety, which must break in new blood after the departures of free safety Harrison Smith and Second Team All-Pac-10 strong safety Donnie McCleskey.  (The only other departure from last year's starting eleven in defensive end Tosh Lupoi, who only started six games due to injury.)  But with two All-Pac-10 seniors, Tim Mixon and Daymeion Hughes, holding down the corner spots, there is no question the secondary will be good.  The only question is how good, and that should prove the difference between a repeat of last year's 8-4 and a conference title (or more) for the Bears.

The defense has been stouter against the run than the pass in recent years, and I would expect that trend to continue this year, especially considering the two safeties Cal must break in.  But make no mistake – this defense is the class of the conference, so perhaps the only way teams will beat them with regularity is with the long ball.  The 3.3 yards per carry allowed last year is phenomenal (USC came within a Vince Young of winning the national title yielding 3.8), and that mark hasn't been over four since 1997.  And with senior defensive linemen Brandon Mebane and Nu'u Tafisi, both All-Pac-10 last year, leading the charge up front, that streak will almost certainly carry on.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Cal was better than last year's 8-4 record might indicate.  The wins, save for a 42-38 thriller over Washington State, were all lopsided, while the losses, save for a 35-10 defeat to USC, all could have gone the other way.

- You have to be impressed with the sound football Tedford has brought to Cal.  For all the talk of his offensive aerial wizardry, the secret to his success has been spectacular line play on both the offensive and defensive sides.  And I know I've harped on this already, but it bears repeating: Cal's rushing efficiency on both sides of the ball is easily the best in the country.  In 2004, their 6.1 yards per carry was more than twice the 2.7 per carry they allowed, and last year's 5.8-3.3 split came close to pulling that off again.  If questions in the passing game resolve themselves (quarterback play on offense and those new new safeties on D) to the point where defenses will have to play Cal honestly and the Bears can stuff the box on D, this year's margin should be even wider.

- Given that I am spewing nothing but compliments for Stanford's archrival, you know they should be really good.  On that note, it's just as well Stanford visits Cal this year.  Save the precious home-field advantage for more winnable contests.

- 10 wins should not be a problem for the Bears, but a 600-pound elephant of a schedule is preventing me from calling anything more.  There is one gimme versus Portland State, but every other opponent is a BCS-team.  Oh, and look at the road opener and finale: at Tennessee and at USC.  There goes a potential national title, especially considering the road date against upcomer Arizona may also be dicey.

- These ridiculously difficult schedules will be a common refrain as we run through the Pac-10 because of the extra conference game.  It is great every team in the league will face each other, but it puts the conference at a tremendous disadvantage.  Every other BCS league plays eight conference games, so every Pac-10 school is essentially substituting a home date with South Directional U. with a visit to Autzen.  Thanks a lot, Tom Hansen.  The 12-game schedule this year further decreases the odds a Pac-10 team will run the table and take a shot at the national title.

2006 Regular Season Prediction:

10-2, Pac-10 Runners-Up (if only Cal hosted USC...)

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