2012 California Football Preview: The Comfort Of Your Own Bed

BOULDER, CO - SEPTEMBER 10: (L-R) Zach Maynard #15, Keenan Allen #21, Isi Sofele #20 and Chris McCain #40 of the California Golden Bears celebrate their 36-33 overtime victory over the Colorado Buffaloes at Folsom Field on September 10, 2011 in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

For the first time since 2006, Jeff Tedford's Cal Golden Bears actually improved last fall. With some exciting skill position players on offense and a load of former star recruits on defense, can they do it again in a Pac-12 North that is suddenly loaded? Related: California's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Golden Bears football, visit Cal blog California Golden Blogs, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Bay Area.

We're going to start with something I wrote almost exactly one year ago, as we are basically in the same place regarding Cal football:

What Greg Schiano is to Rutgers, Jeff Tedford is to California. In the last nine years under Tedford, Cal has had eight winning seasons; in the 28 years before Tedford took over, Cal had eight winning seasons. But like Schiano, Tedford's program has regressed in recent years, and he's reached the "Has he peaked?" portion of the general coaching life cycle. He has recruited rather well and produced plenty of individual talent, but the overall product on the field is not as good as it was in the 2006-07 window. Can he get it back? And ... exactly what happens if he doesn't?

I don't think things have reached Glen Mason Territory yet (if only because Tedford brought them to some serious heights compared to their recent history -- double-digit wins twice, and four different seasons where they spent at least one week in the Top 10 -- and surely earned himself some goodwill in the process), but they are trending in that direction.[…]

For the first time since 2006, Tedford's Golden Bears actually improved in 2011. They had fallen from 13th in F/+ in 2006, to 20th, to 33rd, to 52nd, to 72nd, but they rebounded last fall, ranking 45th and bringing home seven wins. Despite the loss of ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi, Tedford and company inked another exciting recruiting class, and they are in the odd position of ranking 43rd in five-year F/+ and 18th in two-year recruiting. Typically, schools that pull that feat are 100-year powers that can get by on name recognition. California is not that. But here they are, improving but failing to meet the potential of the players they have been signing. In 2012, they will feature a star receiver, an experienced backfield, and a young, exciting defense full of recent blue-chippers. Will that be enough for them to improve once more in a surging Pac-12 North?


Related: Check out California's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's more of what I said about the Golden Bears last year:

So what is it about Cal's Memorial Stadium? Within the confines of their home stadium, the Golden Bears had the best defense in the country and looked excellent overall. Away from home, meanwhile, the defense was distinctly below average. In their first five home games, they allowed just 49 points. In their first road game, they allowed 52. You are supposed to be better at home, but ... good lord.

Adj. PPG in Berkeley: Cal 25.0, Opponents 8.9 (+16.1)
Adj. PPG away from Berkeley: Opponents 29.1, Cal 21.9 (-7.2)

Adjusted for opponent, that is a 23.3 point swing between home and road games. A season-long, plus-16.1 Adj. PPG margin would get you ranked eighth in the country. Minus-7.2 would rank you 94th. This isn't normal.

Cal returns a decent level of experience, they should potentially fix their single biggest weakness from last fall (quarterback), and their recruiting rankings suggest that their level of talent is better than what they showed last year. … I expect them to get back to a bowl game this fall, but a cruel opening month could set the narrative either way. Two "home" games (in San Francisco) versus Fresno State and Presbyterian are complemented by road trips to Colorado, Oregon and Washington in the first five games; this typically isn't the recipe for succeeding with a new quarterback. Cal could conceivably start anywhere between 1-4 and 4-1 before a stretch of four "home" games in five weeks. … [L]ast year's odd struggles show that something isn't right in Berkeley, and since I cannot completely identify what that 'something' is, I cannot really say whether it's fixable or not. How about we just predict Cal to go 6-6 or 7-5 this year and move on with our lives?

California's home-road splits became a bit more normal in 2011, but they were still larger than normal.

Home: Cal 26.8 Adj. PPG, Opponents 18.1 (plus-8.7)
Road: Cal 26.2 Adj. PPG, Opponents 28.4 (minus-4.2)

While undergoing extensive renovations at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Cal played all of its home games in San Francisco, but the difference between home and road performance was still about 12.9 Adj. Points. The Cal defense was one of the best in the country in the Bay Area and particularly average away. There must be something about those Cal dorm room beds that does it for the Golden Bears.

On November 5, Cal stood at 4-4, in danger of missing a bowl for the second straight year and reeling somewhat from a series of poor performances; they had lost at UCLA by 17 points and offered little resistance to either Oregon or USC, losing by a combined 73-24. But they raised their level of play down the stretch, winning three and barely losing at Stanford, and it assured them a return to postseason play.

First Three Games: Cal 25.3 Adj. PPG, Opponents 19.4 (plus-5.9)
Next Five Games: Opponents 25.0 Adj. PPG, Cal 24.9 (minus-0.1)
Last Five Games: Cal 28.7 Adj. PPG, Opponents 24.8 (plus-3.9)

Late-season momentum tends to mean something good for the following season as long as you return enough difference-makers. They fit that bill on offense; we'll see if an exciting, if young, defense can hold up its end of the bargain, both at home and away.

Offense

We'll start with this: aside from Oklahoma, California quite possibly signed the best batch of freshman receivers in the country in their 2012 recruiting class. Newcomers Bryce Treggs, Cedric Dozier, Kenny Lawler and Darius Powe should form the bones of a fantastic receiving corps in the near future, and the best part is that none of them will have to truly become stars in 2012. That's because Cal already has one: junior Keenan Allen. The former five-star recruit from North Carolina exploded for 97 catches, 1,336 yards and a healthy per-target average of 9.1 yards last fall. He was targeted by 35.4 percent of Cal's passes in 2011 and is clearly capable of carrying a big load.

Still, the freshmen will likely have to provide something. Allen may return, but receivers Marvin Jones and Michael Calvin and tight end Anthony Miller do not. They combined for 47.7 percent of Cal's targets, but if there is good news here, it is that only Allen was particularly impressive in 2011, combining to average just 7.0 yards per target. Jones regressed to 6.9 per target after two years as Cal's No. 1 receiver, so the thought of replacing him isn't quite as overwhelming as it may have once been.

Despite the presence of Allen and Jones, Cal ranked only 60th in Passing S&P+, which shows that senior quarterback Zach Maynard still has some improvement to do. The offense came a long way under his guidance -- incredibly, Cal ranked 106th in Passing S&P+ in 2010 -- but he was, on occasion, maddeningly consistent. He would thread tough, accurate passes to Allen one moment, then get his feet crossed up and float easy, safe dumpoffs over running backs' heads. One week, he would complete 20 of 29 passes for 280 yards against a good Stanford defense; another week, he would complete 20 of 41 against Oregon. He was a bit of a crapshoot, and it goes without saying that Cal's ceiling is limited if he doesn't improve in that regard.

The good news is that a reasonably efficient running game should improve. Seniors Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson make for a nice shiftiness-and-power combination, and they combined to average 5.2 yards per carry over 25 carries per game. They did not get much help from a line that ranked just 86th in Adj. Line Yards, however. Tedford and coordinator Jim Michalczik attempted run-pass balance last season, but they occasionally ran into trouble (i.e. passing downs) because of this. Three starting linemen return, and a wealth of young, former four-star recruits await their turn, but all-conference tackle Mitchell Schwartz could be missed.

Despite his offense-friendly reputation and a series of strong units half a decade ago, offensive inconsistency has plagued Tedford's Bears in recent years. Only once in the past four seasons have they had an offense rank in the Off. F/+ Top 50. Everywhere you look, you see former star recruits waiting their turn, players like incoming four-star quarterback Zach Kline, former four-star running backs Dasarte Yarnway and Brendan Bigelow, the incoming receivers and four-star linemen like guards Alejandro Crosthwaite and Jordan Rigsbee. But they need to develop quickly to keep up in a division that features Chip Kelly's Oregon offense, the road graders at Stanford, Keith Price at Washington and now Mike Leach's Air Raid at Washington State.

Defense

The California defense lost quite a few quality playmakers following the 2010 season, but to my relative surprise, the Golden Bears not only held steady, but actually improved from 38th in Def. F/+ to 35th. As with 2010, Cal was an infinitely better defensive team at home, but Clancy Pendergast's defense once again graded out relatively well overall. And hey, aside from USC, the best offenses on the schedule (Stanford, Washington, Oregon) all have to play at Memorial Stadium this fall!

Cal's defense was a statistical oddity in 2011, and not even because of the home-road splits. They ranked fifth in Adj. Line Yards and 15th in Standard Downs S&P+ but only 44th in Rushing S&P+. They ranked 19th in Adj. Sack Rate and 17th in Passing S&P+ but only 43rd in Passing Downs S&P+. These are seemingly contradictory stats. What exactly does this odd combination mean? Here's my guess:

  • California's cornerbacks were fantastic. With the top three returning, that should be the case again. Steve Williams and Marc Anthony, each one-time four-star recruits, combined for six tackles for loss, three interceptions and 23 passes broken up; there might not be a better corner duo out west. Throw in four-star sophomore Stefan McClure, and the unit gets even better. This should make the losses of both starting safeties, Sean Cattouse and D.J. Campbell, easier to stomach.
  • The linebackers were great at attacking, poor at recovery. These numbers suggest that opponents found success passing on standard downs and running on passing downs; you do that when the opposing defense is occasionally too aggressive for its own good. We'll see how that changes in 2012 with the departures of the two best attacking linebackers, Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt (25 tackles for loss, five sacks). Cal has recruited quite well at the linebacker position -- sophomores Chris McCain, David Wilkerson and Nick Forbes (who surged this spring) were all four-star recruits, as is incoming freshman Michael Barton. (Another exciting four-star sophomore, Cecil Whiteside, was recently dismissed from the team). If the newbies are less successful in the tackles-for-loss department but more sound in reading and recovering, that might not be a net loss.
  • The line was between good and great. Cal made a ton of plays near or behind the line of scrimmage, and a deep line -- five different linemen recorded at least three tackles for loss -- was a primary reason. Unfortunately, both starting ends, Trevor Guyton and Ernest Owusu (combined: 19.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), are gone. The pressure shifts to tackle/end Aaron Tipoti and enormous junior Deandre Coleman to replace at least some of that production. There is reason to be excited about players like Coleman, sophomore ends Mustafa Jalil and Brennan Scarlett and redshirt freshman Todd Barr (once again, they all had lovely recruiting profiles), but it is still a lot to ask for the new group to match last year's great numbers.

In all, there is reason to assume that Pendergast will once again field a Top 40 defense. You could do worse than having a wonderful pair of corners and a potentially deep, if unproven, line. But in losing six starters, including both ends, both inside linebackers and both safeties, improvement is still a lot to ask.

Defining Success

Again, it has to be considered great news that Stanford, Washington and Oregon all visit Berkeley this fall. Win one or two of those games, take out Nevada, Southern Utah and Arizona State at home, and you are well on your way to another bowl bid. But with trips to Ohio State, USC, Washington State and Utah also on the docket, expecting too much more than 6-6 or 7-5 might be a bit problematic. Evidently Cal fans see 7-5 as the most likely possibility, so let's just set the bar there.

Prognosis

If you are trying to build a consistent winner out of a program that hasn't always consistently won, you typically want to see one specific thing taking shape: your upperclassmen are winning, and their potential replacements were more highly-ranked recruits than them. The latter is taking shape -- there are too many young, four-star freshmen and sophomores to list all of them here. But this team's fate will still be determined as much by the old guys seniors like Zach Maynard, Isi Sofele, C.J. Anderson, the three returning two-year starters on the offensive line (Matt Summers-Gavin, Brian Schwenke, Dominic Gates), defensive lineman Aaron Tipoti, safety Josh Hill, et cetera, not to mention junior Keenan Allen, who very well might be playing his last season of non-NFL football. Can this group continue a recovery that began last year and set the table for the aforementioned exciting youngsters? I see Cal treading water in 2012, but honestly, that might be enough to continue optimism for the future.

For more on Golden Bears football, visit Cal blog California Golden Blogs, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Bay Area.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

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