Top 50 Countdown: No. 13 California

Coach: Jeff Tedford | Staff
In 2006: 10-3, 7-2; Defeated Texas A&M 45-10 in Holiday Bowl.
Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense.
Key losses: RB Marshawn Lynch, DL Brandon Mebane, LB Desmond Bishop, CB Daymeion Hughes.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: The Bears' plan is to get back to basics. Last year Tedford hired Mike Dunbar to implement the Spread offense, which had mixed results. Dunbar has since moved on to Minnesota, and Tedford figures to re-emphasize the physical style he brought to Cal six years ago. He has a solid quarterback and excellent skill players - especially at wide receiver - with which to work.

CALIFORNIA TOP 10
DeSean Jackson may be the most explosive player in the nation.

1. DeSean Jackson, WR
2. Alex Mack, C
3. Zack Follett, LB
4. Justin Forsett, RB
5. Nate Longshore, QB
6. Syd'Quan Thompson, CB
7. Brandon Hampton, S
8. Mike Gibson, T
9. Robert Jordan, WR
10. Andrew Larson, P
Best player: WR DeSean Jackson is arguably the most explosive receiver in the nation and is definitely a Heisman Trophy candidate. He averaged 18 yards on 59 catches last season and scored nine TDs.

Most overrated: QB Nate Longshore had a very good showing in 2006, but he struggled in big games. He completed fewer than 50 percent of his attempts and threw six interceptions and just two touchdown passes in the Bears' three losses.

Most underrated: T Mike Gibson didn't start at the beginning of last season and emerged as the Bears' best lineman. He earned second team All-Pac 10 recognition. Yet, as with the case of most offensive linemen, he remains obscure.

Must step up: Longshore needs to make better decisions under pressure - or when the primary receiver is covered. He hopes shedding 10 pounds will enhance his mobility.

Impact newcomer: After sitting out a redshirt season in '06, former four-star RB prospect James Montgomery will settle into the role as Justin Forsett's backup. However, that doesn't mean Montgomery won't contribute. Forsett rushed for 626 yards last season as Marshawn Lynch's backup.

Battle to watch: Although the Bears look solid at tight end with second-team All-Pac 10 selection Craig Stevens back, he only caught 17 passes a year ago. They need a pass-catching TE, and Cameron Morrah and junior college transfer Skylar Curran will vie to take over that role.

New in 2007: Expect the Bears to increase their overall speed. Four-star RB prospects Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen are both burners that could be used in various ways, including special teams.

Grade the units:
QB - B: Longshore threw for more than 3,000 yards with 24 touchdowns in '06, but must avoid interceptions in big games.
RB - B: Forsett was a luxury as a backup. He should be pretty good as a starter, too.
WR - A: Jackson headlines arguably the best group of receivers in the nation. He, Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins all had at least 46 catches for more than 12 yards a grab last season.
Line - B: The Bears averaged more than 160 rushing yards per game and allowed only 13 sacks all last season. But two starters must be replaced up front.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: Six starters must be replaced, so defensive coordinator Bob Gregory definitely has his work cut out for him. Among the losses from '06 are the Bears' top three tacklers. They also lost CB Daymeion Hughes, who had eight interceptions. The veterans and a few new starters must raise their level of performance in order for Cal to be taken seriously in the national picture.

Best player: LB Zack Follett posted a team-best 12.5 tackles for loss in 2006 despite coming off the bench the first 11 games. His 62 total tackles were solid, but that figure should spike now that he'll be in the starting lineup from the outset.

California Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Tennessee
Sept. 8 at Colorado State
Sept. 15 Louisiana Tech
Sept. 22 Arizona
Sept. 29 at Oregon
Oct. 13 Oregon State
Oct. 20 at UCLA
Oct. 27 at Arizona State
Nov. 3 Washington State
Nov. 10 Southern California
Nov. 17 at Washington
Dec. 1 at Stanford
Most overrated: DT Matthew Malele started all 13 games a year ago, yet he managed only 11 tackles. However, in the spring he shed 20 pounds from his 335-pound frame. Being lighter and more mobile might help increase his production.

Most underrated: Brandon Hampton last year establish himself as a solid performer in his first season as a starter. He was fourth among the Bears in tackles and grabbed two interceptions.

Shoes to fill: Mebane's departure to the NFL cost the Bears their best defensive lineman. Junior DT Mika Kane, who played much of last season with a padded cast, has the sizeable task of replacing him.

Who must perform: Injuries thrust Syd'Quan Thompson into the starting lineup as a freshman. As a sophomore, he'll be counted on to develop into the shutdown corner the Bears badly need.

Impact newcomer: Incoming freshman DE Scott Smith, at 6-foot-7, 244-pounds, has the reach and speed off the edge to vie for immediate playing time.

Position battle: Kane came out the spring as a starter opposite senior Malele at DT, but redshirt freshmen Michael Costanzo and Derrick Hill will push him.

New in 2007: The defensive line lost three starters, so there obviously there will be new faces up front.

Grade the units:
DL - C: Aside from Malele the defensive line is being overhauled. However, enough potential is there to expect the Bears will be OK.
LB - B: That was one of the deepest areas in '06, so the loss of a couple of starters won't hurt too much. Worrell Williams is a proven performer and Follett could challenge for all-conference honors. Justin Moye has to distinguish himself on the strong side.
DB - C: Cal must upgrade a pass defense that ranked 103rd nationally. The potential to improve is definitely there with three starters returning.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: Although California's coverage units need to be better, its special teams are superior to most. Jackson is among the nation's premier punt return men and is a threat to score every time he gets the ball. The kickoff teams aren't as spectacular, but are solid. Also, punter Andrew Larson has earned all-conference acclaim and the kicking isn't bad, either.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
Not since the 1959 Rose Bowl have the Cal Bears played in a major bowl game, but they have a shot this season if the defense comes together. In the first month of the season, they have the opportunity to avenge two of last season's losses. Tennessee and Arizona come to Berkeley in 2007. USC also must visit in November. Cal will reach a bowl game for the fifth consecutive year, and a BCS game is possible. However, the questions on defense will make bettering last year's 10-3 finish difficult.
Best player: Jackson led the nation with an 18.2-yard average on punt returns.

Grade the units:
K - B: Tom Schneider is a solid kicker coming off a very good year in which he converted 15 of 20 attempts and was 13 of 15 inside 50 yards. He also converted a 55-yarder against Stanford.
P - A: Larson distinguished himself in his first season at the Division I level with a 42.6-yard average that ranked third in the Pac-10. Sixteen of his 49 punts were downed inside the 20, and 16 were fair caught.
KR - B: Forsett averaged 16.2 yards on five kickoff returns last season. Hawkins and Montgomery will also return kickoffs this year.
PR - A: Jackson has averaged 19.4 yards on 26 career punt returns with five touchdowns.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: Tedford arrived in Berkeley in 2002 and revived a dormant program which was coming off a 1-10 debacle the previous year. After five winning seasons, the question now is whether he can lead the Bears to a championship. That may depend on defensive coordinator Bob Gregory getting more production out of the defensive line.

Grade the coaches:
HC - A: Before Tedford's arrival, Cal had endured eight seasons without a winning record. The Bears have won at least seven games every season under Tedford. The Bears can at least challenge Southern California for West Coast supremacy.
Off. - B: Jim Michalczik was promoted to offensive coordinator after five successful years as the offensive line coach. During that time, Cal ranked among the nation's top 25 in scoring offense and averaged more than 350 yards.
Def. - C: Gregory's defenses have been respectable but rarely outstanding. In 2004 the Bears ranked 24th nationally in total defense, but they have not finished higher than 46th in any other season under Gregory.
Special teams - B: Coach Pete Alamar's special teams ranked fourth nationally in punt returns and eighth in net punting last season. Two years ago, Cal ranked fifth nationally in punt return average.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 12.

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