The summer is heating up and so is our anticipation for the start of the college football season. Continuing the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview countdown is number 53, the California Golden Bears out of Berkeley.
The Bears finished 2011 in the middle of the pack of the Pac 12 with a 7-6 record, 4-5 in conference. The Bears quickly fell out of conference contention when they lost their first three conference games, and four of five, before stringing together a few wins to get bowl eligible. It was a disappointing season for Jeff Tedford and the boys from Berkeley, who will try and avoid another early season setback to have a shot at hanging with the top of the Pac 12 North using an experienced roster.
The Bears are helped by returning several key contributors on the offensive side of the ball starting under center with senior Zach Maynard. Last season, Maynard threw for nearly 3,000 yards, finishing with the third highest single season yardage total in school history, and tossed 17 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. The transfer from Buffalo will look to have an even more impressive follow-up in his second season out west and lead Cal over the top.
In the backfield, the Bears will turn to Isi Sofele once again. Sofele led the Cal rushing attack in 2011, gaining 1322 yards and averaging 5.2 yards per carry, scoring 10 touchdowns. In his first season as the featured back, Sofele showed himself to be a durable and reliable asset in the Cal backfield. Sofele will be called upon once again to pace the Bears offense and has been named to the 2012 Preseason All-Pac-12 third-team.
The receiving corps will be led by junior Keenan Allen, who led the team in receiving in 2011 with 98 catches for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns. Allen was named third-team Preseason All-American and first-team Preseason All-Pac 12, while also being included on the shortlist of preseason Biletnikoff Award finalists in addition to the Paul Warfield Award, and the Paul Hornung Award. Allen missed all of Cal’s spring practices due to an injury, but will be turned to once the season starts as the main weapon in Cal’s passing attack. Freshman Maurice Harris will act as Cal’s number two wideout.
The defense will be anchored by senior Josh Hill at safety. Last season, Hill finished fourth on the team in tackles with 71, making a pair of interceptions, a forced fumble, and a sack. He’s played all over the secondary for Cal (corner, safety, and nickel) and will now act as the leader of the secondary. He’ll be joined by senior Marc Anthony at cornerback as the keys to shutting down opposing passing games.
The defensive front seven will rely on the continued growth of sophomore Chris McCain. The 6’6″ outside linebacker played a supporting role last season, appearing in 10 games, starting in six, making 29 tackles, six for loss, with 1.5 sacks. Cal will look to him to increase his production off the edge and create havoc for opposing offenses.
Deandre Coleman will be turned to as the leader of the defensive line, returning from a strong showing in 2011. Coleman is the leading returning tackler for the defensive line, making 19 tackles, six for loss, with a pair of sacks. He will need to step up and lead a young and inexperienced group of linemen who will need to take some big strides to improve a defense that allowed nearly 25 points per game in 2011.
Cal once again has a tough schedule to start things off. After a season opener against a tough Nevada club, the Bears get an easier game against Southern Utah. Then it’s a trip to Columbus to take on Ohio State September 15, which is never an easy place to play.
One week later, the Bears open up conference play with a road game against USC, who may be in the running for a national title in 2012. After that, Cal benefits from getting most of its tough games at home, including Stanford, Washington, and Oregon. Road trips to a dangerous Washington State and Utah could add some hurdles to the Bears season.
If Cal can come out of September above .500, it would be a huge victory for them. They’ll likely be trailing the Pac 12 leaders early on and will be trying to play catch up down the stretch. Look for Cal to once again finish around .500, and down the ladder of the conference standings.