California was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10 conference media poll, which is the lowest the Bears have been picked since Jeff Tedford's second season, when the Bears were picked eighth. The loss of big-play back Jahvid Best and most of its linebacking corps is part of the reason the Bears for the middling projection.
However, the main reason for skepticism is at quarterback, which has been the issue at Cal for several years.
Kevin Riley will be the Bears' opening-game starter for the third straight season, and at times, he has been productive. But at other times he has been far less effective. He is the epitome of inconsistency.
Tedford is hoping Riley will put it together for his senior season. If he does, Cal could easily challenge for the title in a conference in which no team seems overpowering. If he is as inconsistent as he was last season, however, the Bears will be inconsistent as well, and probably will do worse than last year's 5-4 conference finish.
Quarterback play is key for every team, especially in the Pac-10, but for Cal, quarterback play is the single factor that will make or break the season. So much hinges on Riley's performance this season that it may seem like an unfair burden.
Certainly, the success of RB Shane Vereen, who was impressive as the Bears' No. 1 running back after Best was lost for the season, and the progress of the Bears' defense under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will affect Cal's chances. Pendergast promises to blitz often and give a number of different looks to put pressure on the passer, something Cal did not do last season and something Tedford has made a priority this year.
The Bears' secondary was the team's weak link last season, and with the departure of their best defensive back (CB Syd'Quan Thompson) defending the pass will be a chore, especially with a depleted linebacker corps in the 3-4 alignment. ILB Mike Mohamed is the best player on the team, but he will have little help. The Bears were counting only highly touted freshman Chris Martin to provide immediate help at linebacker, before he transferred to Florida during the summer.
Riley success will also be tied to the play of his receivers, and the addition of freshman Keenan Allen could be the key. Allen is expected to bolster a wide-receiving corps that was not as productive as it needs to be. Allen provides a big, athletic target who may be a starter this season. He may get some playing time in the defensive secondary as well.
Nonetheless, all those issues will take care of themselves if Riley can be productive on a regular basis.
Cal will play its home games for the 2011 season at AT&T Park in San Francisco while its home stadium in Berkeley, Memorial Stadium, is undergoing retrofit reconstruction. Capacity at AT&T Park for football is about 45,000, more than 20,000 less than Memorial Stadium. Cal expects to be back in Memorial Stadium for the 2012 season.
LB Chris Martin, an incoming freshman rated the nation's No. 10 overall recruit by Scout.com, transferred to Florida in mid-July. That was a major blow to the Bears, who were hoping Martin might become a starter as a freshman to fill a noticeable void at outside linebacker. Martin is from Oakland, and said he needed to get away from the distractions of the Bay Area.
Cal is negotiating with Fresno State for a possible game at a neutral site during the 2011 season. Cal coach Jeff Tedford played quarterback at Fresno State and was an offensive coordinator there as well. However, Cal has been reluctant to schedule the Bulldogs. As training camp began, it was still unclear whether an agreement to play Fresno State would be reached.
Cal is one of the few schools to play in a bowl game each of the past seven seasons, but the Bears may struggle to make it eight in a row. The Pac-10 is affiliated with six bowls, including a BCS game.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Sept. 25 game against Arizona will tell us a lot about the Bears and QB Kevin Riley. The Bears played pretty well on the road last season, unlike previous seasons, but this will be a challenge for Riley. The Wildcats were picked to finish ahead of the Bears in the conference media poll. This is Cal's Pac-10 opener and its fourth game of the season, and it is usually around the fourth, fifth or sixth game that the Bears begin their slide.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: QB Kevin Riley is the key. His numbers in Cal's wins were dramatically better than they were in the Bears' losses. In Cal's eight wins, he complete 61.2 percent of his passes for an average of 237.4 yards a game with 15 touchdown passes and four interceptions and a passer rating of 157.90. In the five losses, he completed 46.2 percent of his passes for 190.2 yards a game, five TDs and four picks and a passer rating of 93.5. When he plays well, Cal wins. When he doesn't, Cal loses.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The Bears' pass defense was lousy last season, ranking 111th of 120 Division I-A (FBS) teams in pass defense. Their defensive backs did not react well to the in the air, and the one reliable defensive back last season, Syd'Quan Thompson, is gone. Cal's linebackers play a major role in pass defense, but ILB Mike Mohamed is the only sure starter among the linebacking corps. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergrast will try to apply more pressure on the opposing passer to ease the burden on the defense backs.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're going to be much more aggressive on defense this year, and we need to do a better job on pass defense. That all starts with being able to get to the quarterback." -- Cal coach Jeff Tedford.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Jeff Tedford, ninth year, 67-35.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Kevin Riley
Although ILB Mike Mohamed is the team's best player and the one the Bears' count on to make game-changing plays, Riley is the most important player. The Bears' season will directly parallel Riley's success. Jeff Tedford is known for producing standout quarterbacks, but 2009 was the third consecutive year in which shaky quarterback play prevented Cal from having successful seasons. Riley must avoid those few bad plays that seemed to occur at the most critical moments last season.
BREAKOUT STAR: DE Cameron Jordan
This is a close call between Jordan and NT Kendrick Payne, who was not even a starter last season but was the star of spring practice. But Jordan has demonstrated he has all the tools, and with a possible pro career on the line in his senior season, Jordan will be geared for a big year. After being overshadowed last season but the other end, Tyson Alualu, Jordan should have the highlight reel to himself in 2010.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Steve Williams
This would have been freshman LB Chris Martin if he hadn't transferred to Florida in mid-July, and could be incoming freshman WR Keenan Allen. But with the problems Cal had at cornerback last season and the importance of the position, Williams is a guy who could emerge after redshirting last season as a freshman. He was too small last year and still is undersized, but he's added enough weight to bring down ball-carriers. He may not be a starter when the season begins, but he should be there by season's end.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
Offense -- QB Kevin Riley, RB Shane Vereen, FB Will Kapp, LT Matt Summers-Gavin, LG Brian Schwenke, C Chris Guarnero, RG Justin Cheadle, RT Mitchell Schwartz, TE Anthony Miller, WR Marvin Jones, WR Jeremy Ross.
Defense -- DE Trevor Guyton, NT Derrick Hill, DE Cameron Jordan, OLB Mychal Kendricks, ILB Mike Mohamed, ILB D.J. Holt, OLB Keith Browner, CB Darian Hagan, CB Bryant Nnabuife, S Sean Cattouse, S Chris Conte.
LB Cecil Whiteside, an incoming freshman expected to compete for playing time this season, is expected to grayshirt after academics apparently will prevent him from enrolling in the fall. Whiteside is expected to attend a junior college in the fall and enroll at Call in December.
LB Chris Little, who was expected to compete for playing time, was dismissed from the team in June for failing to comply with team policy.
CB Darian Hagan participated on only a limited basis in the spring as he attempted to catch up on his academics. When he did participate in the spring, he was listed as third string. However, it appears he will be academically eligible this fall, and could wind up starting.