September 4, 2009

Maryland visits California

Last year, Cal visited Maryland and claimed that the 9 a.m. Pacific start time had no bearing on the outcome. I'm not so sure. And I'm not so sure that Maryland will do any better with tomorrow night's late kickoff (10 p.m. Eastern). The second half kickoff will take place around midnight Eastern. Tough to adjust to that and stay fresh for the fourth quarter.

In any case, the first game every year is rife with unknowns. Just ask Oregon, ranked in the top 25 preseason but looking completely outmatched last night against Boise State. And this year, Maryland has more unknowns than their share while the Bears know quite a bit about themselves already.

The Terrapins return only ten starters. They are such a young and inexperienced team, only Army in all of division one have fewer games started among their players. Their defense returns only four starters--one on the line, one linebacker, and two in the secondary. The defensive strength looks to be the DBs, though, with four seniors starting and an aggressive new defensive coordinator. On offense, the Terps return a highly accurate quarterback and two good ball carriers. Their O line returns only two starters, though, and lost five of its top seven from last year. Like the Bears, they are converting a guard to center. Their other returning starter is the very important left tackle position. The receivers are also young but generally talented.

The Bears, meanwhile, return lots of familiar names. Cal fans all know about the departure of three of the league's best and fastest linebackers, and this year two sophomores are starting in their places. The rest of the defense, though, consists of juniors and seniors with significant experience. The speed of this defense, coupled with the 3-4 scheme and experience (especially in the defensive backfield) make it truly imposing on paper. Last year the Bears grabbed 24 interceptions and held opponents to 19.9 points average. On offense, Cal returns a legitimate potential All American at running back and an improved WR corps and QB from a team that scored 32.6 points per game last year. The tricky bit is the O line, which lost an All American center and this year will start two sophomores and a redshirt freshman.

As with any opening game, it's tough to say exactly how the new players will perform. I have long held the belief that the O line and the linebackers are the most important units on the field. Since that's where Cal's inexperience is, Bears fans may have allowed their expectations to rise a little higher than they should. Still, I believe the quality of the team is very high overall. And the two OTs are each over 315 pounds, which is hard to move.

Maryland is a 21-point underdog for this game, and after looking into the rosters and matchups, it's easy to see why people think that. I have little doubt that the Bears will win this game, but will it be that big a beat-down? Could be. Could be close, if the young Terrapins are talented and the Bears come out sloppy like the Ducks did.

I think Cal will have a lot of offensive success with the big O line against the inexperienced D line of the Terrapins. Maryland's defensive tackles are 315 and 325 pounds, so they won't be easily bowled over for runs up the middle. So expect the Bears to go around or over them, which then exposes Cal to the experienced and talented Maryland secondary. I do expect Best to reel off a number of 7-10 yard runs on speed alone. With the youth of UM's linebackers, expect Tedford to establish a tendency and then switch it up with screens, cutbacks... anything to get the linebackers into a rhythm and then use that against them.

When Maryland has the ball, I think their big O line will do a decent job of pass protection and opening some holes for the running backs. I don't think they'll get anything significant downfield, though, and if they try they might hear the cry of "oski!" ring through the Berkeley night. Their hopes lie in a decent and sustained running game, by stretching the defense and trying to get their backs into space. Cal's 3-4 scheme will make that difficult. And when they get into the red zone, the short field will compress things and play to Cal's favor.

Ultimately, I think the Bears have more talent and experience and will suffer far fewer first-game mistakes than Maryland will. I think Cal will come out fast and furious and put a 14-0 lead on the Terps in the first 20 minutes. The middle of the game will be less dramatic, but the fourth quarter will be all Cal. The young Terrapins will simply not be able to hang with the Bears after midnight Eastern; Tedford's teams have always been known for fitness if nothing else, and depth is a big asset this year.

This is a tough start for Maryland and a good opener for the Bears. Cal fans will ultimately go home happy and talking about hotel prices in Los Angeles at New Year's. As we do after every win.

My prediction: Cal 38, Maryland 16.