The California Golden Bears will host the Northwestern Wildcats in an intriguing opening week matchup in Berkeley. The Bears are a program in transition with what seems like a bright future while the Wildcats could be on the brink of their best season in nearly 20 years.
Sonny Dykes' former team, Louisiana Tech, led the nation in scoring offense in 2012, putting up over 51 points per game. It's safe to assume the new Cal coach won't get his Bears to match that kind of scoring pace, but the move to the BEAR RAID offense should immediately make the team more interesting ... even if it's not running on all cylinders.
For Northwestern, it's all about the one-two punch of quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. They have the ability to keep defenses off balance and can score points in bunches. With seven starters returning to a defense that was middle of the pack in 2012, this team has the potential to challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten title.
Rankings and records: Northwestern is ranked 22nd in both the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Poll. Cal enters the season unranked. These two teams have only met once before, and it was in the Rose Bowl on New Years Day in 1949.
Vegas: The Wildcats are five-and-a-half point road favorites over the Bears, according to oddsshark.com, with the over/under sitting at 57.5.
Weather: Partly sunny with a high in the upper 60s. Perfect weather for playing football.
Three names to know
Venric Mark. Normally spaces like these are used to talk about quarterbacks, and while Colter is a versatile weapon for the Wildcats, it's proper to give some attention to their most dynamic player. Mark scored 15 combined touchdowns in 2012 by rushing, receiving and returning punts. He rushed for 1,366 yards, averaged over six yards a carry and had the second best punt return average in the country at 18.67 yards per return. If Cal gives Mark an opening for even a second, he will take it and make them pay.
Sonny Dykes. Dykes begins his tenure in Berkeley with a tough game. A win in his debut would certainly be nice, but it's more about the long haul than the short term. Dykes replaces Jeff Tedford, a man who built the Cal program back into the range of respectability, but also allowed for a several-season decline before being shown the door. It will take time for his new offense to really take hold and become effective, but judging by Dykes' track record, it shouldn't take long for them to be entertaining.
Jared Goff. The first big decision Dykes made this season was to start the true freshman at quarterback right out of the gate. Goff beat out redshirt freshman Zach Kline and junior Austin Hinder for the job, and reports from Cal camp have him playing steady, largely-mistake free football. Starting a true freshman at quarterback is always a dicey proposition, but if the staff thinks Goff is the long term answer at the position, why not go with him right away? We'll see if he's ready.
Two things at stake
A quick start for Sonny Dykes. People aren't expecting Dykes and the Bears to come roaring out of the gate and beat people into the ground. The program has a solid foundation, but needs to be built back up. That's tough to do while simultaneously installing a new offense and getting wins. People won't be knocking down the doors of Cal administrators demanding Dykes' head if they lose a couple games early, but a nice win over a ranked team to start the season would be a nice and shiny thing to point to if this season goes rougher than expected.
Early season momentum for Northwestern. Ohio State and Michigan receive the lion's share of the hype in the Big Ten, but Northwestern has a legitimate shot at winning the conference this year. They return 15 starters from 2012's 10-win team and have momentum after drilling Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. All those good vibes will be wasted, however, if they lay an egg in the season opener.
How to witness
TV: Kickoff is scheduled for 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Radio: Northwestern: 720 WGN-AM - Cal: 810 KGO-AM
Online streaming: This game will be available on WatchESPN.
For more on the Wildcats, check out Sippin on Purple.
For more on the Bears, head over to California Golden Blogs.