Beware the Cal Bears: When little is expected from them, much often is delivered.
No doubt, little is expected in Berkeley following last season's disappointment that included five losses by double-digit margins. Even the freeloaders on Tightwad Hill felt gypped.
That was the fourth time in the past five seasons Cal was ranked among the nation's preseason top 20 but failed to finish there. But Cal often exceeds modest expectations, as was the case in 2002 when coach Jeff Tedford's first team improved on a 1-10 debacle the previous year and notched seven wins. In '04, they opened the season ranked 13th but finished ninth and almost beat national champion USC. In '08, they opened unranked but posted nine victories.
So could the Bears surprise again?
That will require efficient quarterback play, a stronger offensive line and an improved secondary that may depend heavily on freshmen.
THE SCHEME: California employs a pro-style system that also utilizes elements of the spread. The Bears typically have a productive running game. A streak of seven consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher ended last season, but only because of a season-ending injury to starting TB Jahvid Best. Best and Shane Vereen, who started late in the year, combined for more than 1,800 rushing yards.
STAR POWER: Vereen, a junior, finished just 48 yards shy of 1,000 last season -- and he was a backup. Now that Best has gone to the NFL, Vereen's workload figures to increase substantially. So does his output. When replacing an injured Best in the starting lineup for the final four games of '09, Vereen rushed for 566 yards and six touchdowns. He had more than 100 yards in every game in which he received at least 17 carries. Look for him to get at least 20 every game this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Cal's backup running back typically gets a significant share of the rushing load, and the Bears need a reliable backup for Vereen. Although there is no shortage of candidates, one possibility is redshirt freshman Dasarte Yarnway, a former four-star prospect who rushed for more than 2,100 yards as a high school senior. At 6 feet and 223 pounds, Yarnway can provide an element of power.
STRONGEST AREA: There is great big-play potential at running back. Vereen had touchdown runs of 61, 42 and 36 yards and a 50-yarder in which he didn't score. Cal typically shares the rushing workload, and there are no shortages of candidates to back up Vereen. Sophomore Isi Sofele has gnat-like quickness and size (5-7/186 pounds), and given a crease he has the speed to score from anywhere on the field. Sophomore Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson averaged 6.8 yards per carry while rushing for 211 yards in a limited role last season. And there's the touted Yarnway.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: QB Kevin Riley takes a lot of heat, but he could sure use more help from the line. A year ago, the Bears' offensive front allowed 31 sacks, the second-highest total in the Pac-10. Four starters return, but obviously they have to raise their performance level. The Bears hope moving Matt Summers-Gavin, who missed five games because of injuries in '09, from guard to tackle will help solve that problem.
THE SCHEME: Cal uses a 3-4 set. First-year coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who comes from the NFL, has supervised units that created pressure and forced turnovers. Look for the Bears to be more aggressive and blitz frequently from all angles.
STAR POWER: ILB Mike Mohamed distinguished himself as one of the Pac-10's best in '09. He led the league with 112 tackles, 16 more than anyone else. He also grabbed three interceptions. His interception of Stanford's Andrew Luck on the 3-yard line clinched the victory over the Bears' archrival. An All-Pac 10 selection, Mohamed will contend for even greater honors if he follows up with a similar performance this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Cal assembled one of the country's best 2010 recruiting classes. One big reason is DE/OLB Chris Martin, a five-star recruit ranked the No. 18 prospect in the nation. Martin posted 11 sacks as a high school senior and figures to be a perfect fit for Pendergast's system.
STRONGEST AREA: Mohamed's return and Martin's addition makes linebacker an easy choice. Furthermore, the Bears have plenty of other veterans returning, too. D.J. Holt got eight starts in '09, so the Bears should be solid inside. Last year in his first season as a starter, Mychal Kendricks posted 71 tackles -- the second-highest total on the team. Yet he isn't assured a place in the starting lineup. Keith Browner, a 6-6, 260-pound senior, could be an imposing presence on the outside.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The secondary play was terrible in '09. The Bears ranked 111th in the nation in pass defense; they allowed 20 touchdown passes and made just 11 interceptions. Three of last season's starters have departed. That may be a good thing.
P Bryan Anger is so good that he averaged 41.5 yards per attempt last season, and some felt he had a subpar year. Anger had 14 punts that covered at least 50 yards and killed 24 kicks inside the opponents' 20. So, a "good" season would really be something. Kicking hasn't been a problem, nor has it been an area of strength. A year ago, Vince D'Amato and Giorgio Tavecchio combined to convert 15 of 24 field-goal attempts. Vereen is dangerous on kick returns, but he may not continue in that role. The Bears still will be solid there. Jeremy Ross averaged more than 21 yards on punt returns and can be effective on kickoffs, too. The coverage units need work.
Cal typically gets off to a fast start, and 2010 should be no different. The Bears open with Cal-Davis, then face Colorado and Nevada to complete the non-conference portion of the schedule. Pac-10 play requires road trips to Arizona, USC and Oregon State, which should be strong contenders for the conference championship. The Bears also must close with home games against Oregon, Stanford and Washington.
Cal is usually good, but never quite good enough. The Bears have notched at least eight victories five times in the past six seasons and have posted the second-most victories among Pac-10 teams since coach Jeff Tedford took over eight years ago. But they haven't managed a championship in that span. There are reasons for optimism this season. Vereen and WRs Marvin Jones and Ross provide big-play potential on offense, and Pendergast's addition and an influx of young talent should boost the defense. In addition, there aren't great expectations for Cal, which could have the element of surprise in its favor. But Riley has been inconsistent throughout his career, and the offensive line and secondary have to show dramatic improvement. Overall, the Bears figure to be good again, just not good enough to win a title.