It's that time of year again! Football is just around the corner, and Cal has been voted to finish #2 in the Pac-10 by the local media. (USC was the unanimous #1 and is expected to be #1 in all preseason national polls.) The only Pac-10 team Cal misses this year is ASU, the team picked by the media to finish third (maybe they saw that ASU gets to miss Cal). UW (Cal's first conference opponent, on Sept 10) and Stanford (Cal's final conference opponent) are picked to finish 10th and 9th, respectively.
But on to the opener:
Cal [media guide] vs Sacramento State Hornets [media guide]
Cal has had strong home openers since Tedford came to town:
2004: Beat NMSU, 41-14
2003: Beat Southern Miss, 34-2
2002: Beat Baylor, 70-22
Of those, only Baylor was the actual season opener, with Cal losing on the road to Kansas State in 2003 and beating Air Force handily on the road in last year's opener. This year, there is good reason to think that the average differential of 38 points in Cal's home openers under Tedford will be matched, and possibly surpassed.
The I-AA Hornets have been picked to finish 7th in their conference, the Big Sky, behind such powerhouse programs as Eastern Washington, Montana, and Northern Arizona. In fact, they were picked as a tie for 7th place in both the media and conference coaches polls... in an 8-team conference. Last season, the Hornets finished 7th in the conference with a conference record of 2-5.
The Hornets return 17 starters from last season, including 9 that were some level of all-conference selection. They lose their starting QB as well as an All-America wide receiver who had been a standout for four years. The top QB is a senior who appeared in four games and had just 27 pass attempts (11 completions, 1 TD). They also have a pair of JC transfers, one of whom has been at four colleges including Fresno State (greyshirt) and Marshall (redshirt).
The running backs look talented with a little depth and a strong starter in honorable mention Freshman All-American Ryan Mole. They are thin at receiver, where they lose the All-American star and have just 500 yards receiving in their top three returning WRs. There are depth and youth at WR and tailback, but that can be a double-edged sword. It will hurt the Hornets mightily against the larger, more athletic, more fit Bears.
The Hornets do have all five starters returning on the OL. Not one player on the OL has more than one year of starting, though. That's right--they were all first-year starters at the beginning of last season, and they all return this year. Clearly, they will be much improved, but there's still not a ton of experience, and they'll have a new QB behind them. They are not what you would call undersized, but they would be a very small line for the Pac-10. Their starters will average somewhere around 280, whereas most OL in the Pac-10 are closer to 300, with several, like Cal's O line, significantly heavier.
On defense, the Hornets return seven starters: two linemen, two linebackers, and three DBs. In addition, they have seven other DL who saw significant playing time last year. Again, "undersized" would be inaccurate for their line, but they are small for a Pac-10 team. Inside, the tackles average about 280, which is pretty good, but outside, the ends average about 240. Not tiny, but not the kind of line that will hold up well to Cal's punishing size and fitness over sixty minutes. The linebackers are in the 220 range, which makes them small targets and possible roadkill for Marshawn Lynch.
The only DBs taller than 6'0" are the three free safeties; all the other DBs are six feet or under. The unit has talent, with two of the three returning starters earning either Freshman all-conference or honorable mention Freshman all-conference. The other returning starter also was an honorable mention all-conference player last year. I think the Bears will match up well here, too, with a height advantage and also the powerful running game that will distract the safeties and Cal's big offensive line which will give the incoming Cal QB a lot of time.
One interesting connection: Hornet DL Brandon Povio is a Cal transfer who is new to the Sac State roster.
On special teams, the Hornets return both their kickers but are searching for a new long-snapper.
Cal has their own problems to deal with, and this game against Sacramento State at home will provide a very good opportunity to check how the motor runs in a relatively safe and easy full-game situation.
We all know the Bears need to replace Aaron Rodgers. None of the top candidates has ever taken a snap at the Div I-A level. Tedford has a choice between a highly regarded JC transfer (Ayoob), a redshirt freshman who was a star in high school (Longshore), a converted fullback (Levy) and a true freshman phenom (Reed). Ayoob and Longshore are the frontrunners with Longshore getting Tedford's nod as "the incumbent." I would expect both to play in the first two games, though, just as Tedford played Rodgers and Robertson together when they were both new.
It's interesting to think that Bears fans are probably already salivating at the idea of watching Marshawn Lynch in his second year in the Blue & Gold. Remember who was the featured tailback last year? Some guy named Joe... Jay... JJ? Arrington, that's right! Yeah, he gained something like 2,000 yards and had over 100 yards in all 12 games... but what about that kid Lynch! Plus, there's depth. Terrell Williams (senior) and Marcus O'Keith are capable backups that would be featured backs in any mid-major conference. In addition, Chris Mandarino is back at fullback after three years as a starter. Add him to the outstanding offensive line, and this team will have one scary, bad-ass rushing attack this year.
Speaking of the OL, only Jonathan Giesel is missing from last year's starters (he is going to play in Japan's X-League). All five starters last year made some level of all-Pac-10 honor, and Cal was the league's rushing champion last year. Marvin Philip and Ryan O'Callaghan are the stalwarts and are on all the national award watch lists. Andrew Merz and Aaron Cameron are the other returning starters. O'Callaghan is 6'7" and 360 pounds. Merz is 6'4", 340 pounds. Cameron is 6'5", 305 pounds. Philip is 6'2", 305 pounds. This is a big, athletic, talented line that won games last year by wearing down opponents and owning the fourth quarter. No reason to assume this year will be different.
The biggest problem will be the passing game. (I can hear you all saying, "Duh. He thinks he's so smart. I could write that." Yeah, well, you're the one reading it.) Not only will the Bears have the new QB after one of the best in Cal history, but the Bears lost their top four receivers in McArthur, Lyman, Makonnen, and Toler. The names we recognize returning are Robert Jordan, who looked athletic and fresh last year, ending with over 330 yards receiving and starting the final six games; and Noah Smith, David Gray, and Sam DeSa. Not a lineup that strikes fear in opposing DBs' hearts. Not only that, but the Bears also lost TE Garrett Cross and have virtually no experience to take over there, though there is some talent.
On defense, the Bears are also rebuilding a bit. Gone are Lorenzo Alexander and Ryan Riddle, but returning are Tosh Lupoi and Brandon Mebane. It will be hard to replace the departing talent, but before last year, Riddle was relatively unknown. With the incoming talent and available backups, I think there is hope for a solid unit here.
Linebacker is the same story. Gone are Wendell Hunter, Sid Slater, Joe Maningo, and Francis Blay-Miezah. Yet the talent coming in, while inexperienced, is very highly rated and decorated. This is another reason Cal fans should be happy that Sac State is the first game of the season.
In the defensive backfield, it's another mixed bag. Cornerback is looking good with returning players Donnie McCleskey, Daymeion Hughes, and Harrison Smith. The hole is at safety, where Matt Giordano and Ryan Gutierrez, both reliable, speedy hard-hitters, have departed. With Tim Mixon and Thomas DeCoud back as well, the Bears have a good group in the DBs and a lot of experience and talent to work with.
In the kicking department... well, all the same guys are back, but the field goals were hit-and-miss last year. David Lonie was a capable punter and should be better after last year.
It would be better not to predict the outcome of the opening game. There are so many unknowns on both teams with new QBs and inexperienced receiving corps, and other rebuilding opportunities. I would give the Bears at least 32 points, and actually I expect it to be far more lopsided than that. I am thinking that the Hornets will not make it to the end zone unless it's on a kick return. The Bears, however, should be able to run roughshod all game, and the second half will be all Cal due to the superior size, strength, and fitness. I expect the second half alone to be 35-0. The first half should be similar though a little lower scoring. I think we are likely to see a final score somewhere around 56-0 or 63-0.
August 4, 2005