Jeff Tedford assumed control of an absolute mess when he became California’s head football coach in 2002. The Golden Bears had gone nearly a decade without a winning season, and were 16-39 (12-43 by official NCAA records) in the five years prior under Tom Holmoe. Yet, Tedford led Cal to an unprecedented run of eight straight winning seasons, and appearances in eight of the last nine seasons.
Of all the accomplishments to Tedford’s credit, one has alluded him: a conference championship.
The Bears have been close, but in both 2004 and 2006 were thwarted by the Goliaths at USC. Other Bear teams have been pre-season favorites, like the 2009 team, but failed to meet expectations. There’s more reason to believe the coming season will be another sans league title than there is to suggest Cal might win it. After all, Tedford faces lingering questions about quarterback play, the defense was statistically down from recent seasons, and the Golden Bears were bested by double digits in three of their most high profile games (at Oregon, vs. USC and the Holiday Bowl vs. Texas). Cal would certainly need some fortuitous breaks to even be in the Pac-12 title hunt, let alone win it.
Fortunately for Tedford, there are already a few such breaks to glean from the off-season. Cal was without a home in 2011, playing at AT&T and Candlestick Parks while Memorial Stadium underwent renovations. A new, more modern on-campus facility welcomes Cal back to Berkeley and Cal in turn gets to host its most formidable competition. Each of the three teams that finished ahead of Cal in last season’s Pac-12 North come to Memorial Stadium: Stanford on Oct. 20; Washington Nov. 2; Oregon Nov. 10.
On the field, Cal should benefit from experience.
Star wide receiver Keenan Allen has missed spring practice, but according to Tedford’s twitter account, will be fully recovered from his ankle surgery by summer workouts. A rested and rejuvenated Allen is central to the Bears’ offense. Last season, in a league that featured such standouts as Oregon’s Lavasier Tuinei and DeAnthony Thomas, Washington State’s Marquess Wilson and the USC tandem of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, Allen was arguably the Pac-12’s best receiver.
Isi Sofele, latest addition to the long run of 1,000-plus yard rushers under Tedford, is also back in the fold. The combination of his speed and C.J. Anderson’s goal line and short yardage power gives Cal a formidable ground attack.
Zach Maynard’s development is paramount to Cal excelling offensively. He was shaky most of last season, throwing 12 interceptions and completing just 57 percent of his pass attempts. He has a natural connection with his half-brother Allen, but must learn to use the other weapons in his receiving corps. Tedford has given Maynard a vote of confidence in spring ball, naming him uncontested starter per The San Jose Mercury News. Cal also returns reserve Allen Bridgford, a highly touted recruit from Orange County who has seen very sparing playing time.
In the cited Mercury News report, Teford had praise for Maynard’s progression and partially attributed last season’s struggles to Maynard trying to understand and fit into a new offense. Maynard transferred from Buffalo the previous off-season.
“Last spring you were scratching your head and wondering what’s going to happen. It was just so new,” Tedford said. “Now he has great control of everything that’s going on … now he’s a real field general.”
The offense has a positive outlook, but in an interesting reversal of roles, the defense has more question marks. Cal loses a host of talented rushers in D.J. Holt, Trevor Guyton, Mychal Kendricks and Ernest Owusu. The four combined for 44.5 tackles for loss, and were obviously key in the Golden Bears ranking seventh nationally in that category. Also gone are safeties Sean Cattouse and D.J. Campbell. Ballyhooed recruits like Deandre Coleman and Steve Williams must assume the roles as the defense’s cornerstones.
No one will harbor the delusion that Cal is the “best” team in the conference, or even the division, in sheer terms of talent. The defense losing so much production and questions about Maynard ensure that. However, Cal could have some more good fortune if the reigning three-time league champion must pay the NCAA piper.
Oregon is awaiting a decision about its fate for involvement with Willie Lyles’ recruiting service. Chip Kelly’s Texas recruiting pipeline has come under scrutiny due to exorbitant fees exceeding the NCAA maximum paid to Lyles. A bowl ban would also mean a ban from the Pac-12 championship.
Should the Bears hold serve at home, and UO not factor into the championship race, that leaves USC. The Trojans are the hurdle Tedford has been unable to climb. Since shocking USC in a 2003 classic, Cal is winless vs. the Trojans. That stretch has included one of the most lopsided decisions of Tedford’s tenure, a 48-14 in 2010 that was actually uglier than the final score would indicate. The Golden Bears return to the scene of that crime, the Coliseum, on Sept. 22.
Should USC do as experts project and win the South, and Cal defy expectations to reach the Pac-12 Championship, another date with Tedford’s greatest roadblock would ensue.