August 21, 2007

Cal hosts Tennessee

It's that time of year again! Every year, the last few weeks of August I feel like I'm wandering back from the desert. Not only has the Premier League kicked off again and NFL preseason is in full swing, but college football looms within sight. When I open the sports page, I can finally see something other than baseball, steroids, indictments, and contract disputes. Now I can see football, baseball, steroids, convictions, and contract disputes. It's a beautiful thing.

Anyway, I digress. I have done well over six minutes of research into the media guides of both Cal and Tennessee, and I feel I have achieved expertise sufficient to prognosticate with the best of the TV talking heads. So here you are, Bear fans: My first game preview of 2007!

What can we say? TB Marshawn Lynch, OL Andrew Cameron, OL Erik Robertson, and FB Byron Storer all are gone from the Pac-10's most high-scoring offense of 2006 (32.8 ppg). One of the league's best quarterbacks, one of the nation's best tight ends, possibly the nation's best center, and almost certainly the nation's best corps of wide receivers return. Including Heisman Trophy candidate DeShaun Jackson. In addition to TB Justin Forsett, who has 1,600 yards and six 100-yard rushing games in his career as a backup, the offense also returns strength and size in the offensive line despite the departure of two outstanding players in Cameron and Robertson. If the offensive line plays well--and it says here they will--and if the stars and stalwarts say healthy, then this offense could be something really special. With Tedford back in charge and a few spread and shotgun wrinkles added to his playbook, I just can not wait to see the blue & gold line up for the snap.

The defensive line needs some rebuilding but also sees an influx of tremendous talent in players that haven't yet seen game action. Despite the linebacking corps losing Desmond Bishop and Mickey Pimentel, I think the weak link--or rather the biggest question mark--is on the line. The Bears lost two key DEs in Ma'afala and Tafisi and a real force in Brandon Mebane, and the backups coming into their roles have had injury problems and are generally lacking in the type of experience you'd like to see. Given the Bears' tendency to bend-not-break in 2006, I worry about Cal being susceptible to strong running teams. In the linebackers, the Bears lost two great players in Bishop and Pimentel, but they return two players who were both freshman All-America in 2005: Anthony Felder and Zack Follett. Follett was the only non-starter in the nation to earn all-conference honors at linebacker and is a Butkus Award and Ronnie Lott Trophy candidate this year. In addition, Greg Van Hoesen and Worrell Williams have seen plenty of game experience and round out the linebackers nicely. In the defensive backfield, you can't expect to replace a player like Daymeion Hughes, but the Bears return their other three starters and have a lot of talent with significant experience as backups.

The Bears are stocked on special teams, losing only the regular kick holder, Joe Ayoob. Both punting and kicking should be solid, and with DeSean Jackson returning punts again (he shares the Pac-10 record with four TD returns in a season), the return game will also be strong.

The Volunteers come into Memorial Stadium ranked #14 preseason compared to Cal at #12. I think this is basically on the strength of returning QB Erik Ainge, who is quite good and had a 67% completion percentage in 2006. They also return all three (oops, just two... LaMarcus Coker was recently suspended for undisclosed transgressions) of their top tailbacks and a whole bevy of experienced tight ends, one of whom is a monster at 6'8". They also return three of their five starters on the offensive line including a freshman All-America center. BUT, they lost essentially their entire receiving corps and a four-year starter at fullback, Corey Anderson. The two OL they lost were true stars, Aaron Sears (an early 2nd round NFL draft pick) and David Ligon. The OL is still huge, though, averaging 305 lbs. I think any team that doesn't key on the run against the Vols until Tennessee can prove they have a passing game is insane. Cal fans are familiar with the strategy of using an entirely new receiving corps, and it usually turns out not so pretty... even with a really good QB.

The consensus of qualified experts (OK, me) is that the Vols are vulnerable in the middle. I base this on the fact that Tennessee returns to outstanding DEs but are struggling to fill the hole left by two stars at tackle. In addition, they lost their starting middle linebacker. The backup, while capable, is still entering his first year as a starter and is bound to make a few mistakes at one of the most important positions on either side of the ball. In the secondary, the Volunteers lost three starters, but the one returning is a superstar, Jonathan Hefney. Hefney took five interceptions and was second on the team with 96 tackles in 2006. All three of the other positions are to be filled by essential newcomers. The secondary will be a weakness, for sure, especially if the DL can't get solid pressure up the middle.

Like Cal, Tennessee sports one of the nation's top punt return men in Hefney, a semifinalist for the national award for best punt returner. He was beat out by Cal's Jackson. But he is outstanding, and Tennessee also has a superb punter. Their kicking game may suffer, though, as they lost their starting placekicker and were weak on kickoff returns in 2006.

At the risk of sounding like I'm woofing, I think the matchup favors Cal in this game. Not only are they at home with a hankering for revenge with something to prove on national TV, but the returning experience is more balanced than Tennessee's. I think Tedford will have an easier time building a game plan against the Vols than they will have planning against Cal. It all comes down to execution, and injuries can play a vital role in any game, so there are always tons of question marks in the first game.

Now that I'm done equivocating, I'm going to pick Cal to win this, 38-17. When the Bears have the ball, they should be able to give Longshore enough time to find his star receivers running free amid the Vols' inexperienced secondary. Hefney can play, but he can't cover all three receivers. I look for the Bears to keep the defense on their heels with a powerful running game and a couple of middle screens. When the Vols have the ball, the Bears will work to keep them one-dimensional. Cal's secondary is tall and very athletic; my worry is the creative use of the experienced tight ends and running backs against the relative inexperience of Cal's linebackers. Even so, Cal's defense is not lacking experience anywhere but the DL, and if the Volunteers are to establish any sort of passing game, that will be why. If Cal's line can't pressure and hurry Ainge, he might be able to pick out his targets. Still, I think that will be more rare than common, and Tennessee will have difficulty moving the ball with consistency against the Bears.

To win, Tennessee will have to get up early and control the tempo of the game, focus on running and a power game through Cal's line to open up some room in the passing game. On defense... well, Tennessee will need some luck, to be honest. Their best bet is to remove Longshore from the equation.

Man oh man, I wish I was able to be in Berkeley that day.

Go Bears!

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