USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
A schedule by the numbers: Ten teams from a Big Five conference, nine reigning bowl teams, nine conference foes, eight teams coming off seven or more wins, seven teams coming off eight or more wins, four teams coming off 10 or more wins, four reigning Top 25 teams, four teams with title hopes, two teams with real title hopes.
Of all the schedules in all the land – yes, even in the Southeast – California's is the hardest. There's Washington, Washington State and Arizona; there's Brigham Young, Oregon State and USC; there's UCLA, Oregon and Stanford. There's no room to breathe, little time to stretch your legs and no space to relax – and the Golden Bears could use a break.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Pac-12 North
To say Sonny Dykes' debut went against the plan would be an understatement: Cal went 1-11 last fall, beating only Portland State by a touchdown in September and losing 10 games by two or more touchdowns. The Pac-12's best – UCLA, Oregon, USC and Stanford – topped the Bears by a combined score of 217-67; those four opponents scored 148 points in the first half alone, so it could've been worse.
New year, many of the same problems. The Bears have a young quarterback. There are few proven weapons in the backfield. The offensive line lacks that certain something. The defensive line can't get to the quarterback. The front seven can't stop the run. The defense is too heavy; no, it's too light.
Take your dreams of a quick-twitch charge to the top half of the North Division and put them on hold, to be dreamed again at a later date but no, not today. Without even knowing it – though there had been signs – Cal has drifted to rock bottom, and digging out of this hole takes shovels, patience and coaching.
There's nothing wrong with the coaching. Patience? Well, the fan base seems adjusted to the fact that rock bottom comes with a price – those 11 losses, and more to come this fall – but also a silver lining: Cal will get better. For now, you might want to stand back from the here and now to see the big picture.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
It'll be a season of development. There's the big-picture growth, with the roster acclimating itself to Dykes' voice and overall blueprint. There's the offense, which will be asked to hit the ground running in the Air Raid. The defense, which moves from the 3-4 to the 4-3. The rookie quarterback, the young receivers, the young linemen – it's a pretty young team, so personnel development should be Dykes' highest priority. He'll get this team moving forward, though there won't be much progress in the win column.
In a nutshell: All you need to know about last year's defense: Each opponent – and this includes Portland State – scored at least 30 points. Five notched their highest or second-highest point total of the season against Football Bowl Subdivision competition. Each FBS foe gained at least 448 yards of offense; seven gained more than 500 and three more than 600. The Bears allowed 7.08 yards per play, the seventh-worst total in the country and the worst among major-conference programs. The defense allowed 6,355 yards in total, which translates to about 64 football fields, 19,065 feet or 3.61 miles, depending on your measurement of choice. In its last eight games, Cal allowed quarterbacks to complete passes at a 68% clip for 3,092 yards – allowing 9.69 yards per attempt – with 24 touchdowns against two interceptions. This despite facing only 61 pass attempts in the fourth quarter all season.
High point: Beating Portland State.
Low point: Many choices. Let's go with Stanford for a multitude of reasons, such as losing by 50 points to your biggest rival to cap one of the least satisfying seasons in school history.
Tidbit: Where does Cal stand today? Last year's team lost 11 games, the most in program history, and went winless against Football Bowl Subdivision competition for the first time since 1900. The Bears have lost 16 in a row to the FBS and 14 in a row to Pac-12 foes. In 2013, the defense hit new lows in allowing 551 points and 6,533 yards. The program is 4-20 during the last two years, the worst two-year stretch in program history.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Make that three defensive coordinators in as many years. First came Clancy Pendergast, followed by Andy Buh, followed by Art Kaufman, formerly of North Carolina, Texas Tech and Cincinnati. What's one difference between Buh and Kaufman? One is multiplicity: Kaufman will stress the 4-3, like Buh, but will add dashes of the 3-4 and 4-2-5 in an effort to match up with Pac-12 offenses. Another is the track record: Kaufman has orchestrated one-year turnarounds before, as at Texas Tech, and his defense with the Bearcats ranked among the top 15 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and yards per play. If he can lift Cal's defense into similar territory …
Tidbit (Big Game edition): After gaining traction under Jeff Tedford, Cal has fully relinquished Big Game bragging rights to Stanford – losing the past four in the series, with none worse than a season ago, when the Cardinal racked up a rivalry-record 63 points. Dykes is the eighth first-year coach in the program's modern era to lose to Stanford in his first try, joining Frank Wickhorst (1946), Peter Elliott (1957), Ray Willsey (1964), Roger Theder (1978), Bruce Snyder (1987), Keith Gilbertson (1992), Steve Mariucci (1996) and Tom Holmoe (1997).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Best NFL coaches to never win a Super Bowl
1. Paul Brown
2. Marv Levy
3. Bud Grant
4. Dan Reeves
5. Marty Schottenheimer
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Sophomore quarterback Jared Goff will throw for 4,000 yards, toss 20 touchdowns and put up crooked numbers, but Cal could still lose 10 or more games. This isn't an indictment of the sophomore, who stepped in as a first-year freshman last fall and rewrote the program's record book; it's more a statement of fact, and something Goff needs to understand before falling to pieces under the weight of responsibility and lopsided losses. It's not all on him, even if he's the quarterback. Maintaining Goff's confidence should be the second item on Dykes' to-do list, just behind the typical nuts and bolts associated with building a quarterback from scratch, and doubly so given the way Goff ended last fall – not well, basically. What's missing?
A redshirt year, for one, followed by an offseason's worth of fine-tuning. Goff will put up numbers again this fall, but he needs to be tweaked, polished and buffed to a fine shine before fulfilling his promise in one of the premier spots in college football: Dykes' starting quarterback. Goff's decision-making process will improve with time, though it's still an issue today. He clearly needs to get stronger. He needs to devote long hours to developing a stronger rapport with his receiver corps. Goff will need to grow better at reading pre-snap coverage looks and general defensive alignments; more than anything, that comes with time. For Dykes, it'll be vital that the staff create some sort of competition to keep Goff sharp and motivated despite the lack of a valid contender for the starting job. There's work to be done. But if Cal's got problems – and yeah, Cal's got problems – quarterback's low on the list.
You can throw in the towel if senior Chris Adcock isn't healthy, upright and a 12-game starter at center. Remember last fall? Cal's offensive woes – and offensive line woes – were exacerbated by Adcock's knee injury in September; an offense lacking in leadership stumbled during Pac-12 play, while a line short on anything fell apart at the seams. In short, a healthy Adcock gives the Bears a shot at being competitive up front. Not that there aren't issues elsewhere: Cal has no idea what's going to happen at tackle, for one, and must still settle on a rotation from guard to guard. In a perfect world, Adcock starts at center, Matt Cochran at right guard and Jordan Rigsbee, last season's center replacement, goes to left guard; on the outside, Cal is cautiously optimistic that junior Brian Farley, sophomores Christian Okafor and Steven Moore and redshirt freshman Aaron Cochrane can bypass last season's swinging-gate routine and give Goff more time to operate. The number of second-year talents dotting the potential two-deep provides some optimism, but this line isn't ready to take charge against the Pac-12.
Meet Dykes' wide receivers, the deepest, strongest and most confident unit on a roster often short on, well, all those things. When at full capacity, this receiver corps will resemble last year's group only in how many targets find a role in the offense; the Bears spread the wealth, with 11 players making at least 11 receptions and four notching at least 350 yards receiving. When everything clicks, however, you'll see far more explosiveness downfield. The key group returns, outside of would-be senior Richard Rodgers, and expectations are – and should be, in my estimation – fairly high. The best of the bunch: Chris Harper (69 receptions for 840 yards), Bryce Treggs (77 for 751), Kenny Lawler (37 for 350), Darius Powe and Trevor Davis – the latter poised to surprise defensive backs across the Pac-12.
There's more in reserve, particularly if some younger receivers find greater consistency, so the Bears won't lack for options. But there are three ways this group can improve: one, by being more reliable, basically; two, by locking into concrete roles inside and out, with that a lingering issue heading into the summer; and three, working with Goff to create that much-needed rapport.
Defense: Ah, the defense. Former Berkeley professor Robert Oppenheimer's post-Alamogordo quote works to describe last year's group, if used in reverse – call it self-inflicted death and destruction, the opposite of football's general defensive approach. So we embark on the greatest rebuilding project of Kaufman's career: Cal could trim its per-game total by 20% and still rank 90th in the FBS in yards allowed per game, according to last year's national averages, and enters 2014 without any sense of identity. The reason for optimism: Kaufman replaces Buh, giving the Bears a steady, unflappable hand at the tiller. The reasons for pessimism: Cal's line is a mess inside, is heavily reliant on one player for a pass rush, is youthful at linebacker and is grabbing at straws in the secondary.
But the line does have a projected star in junior end Brennan Scarlett, who seemed on the verge of a breakout following a solid 2012 campaign but missed all of last season with the lingering complications of a hand injury. It's difficult to even calculate what Scarlett's return to the lineup means to Cal's up-front pass rush – night and day, hopefully, though he'll have to battle against multiple blockers. On the other side, the Bears and new line coach Fred Tate are leaning toward a combination of senior Kyle Kragen and juniors Puka Lopa and Sione Sina, with Sina perhaps the best option of the bunch, if healthy. Now, the interior – where things get really dicey. With Jacobi Hunter the only proven tackle on the field for the entire spring, Cal hopes that JUCO transfer Trevor Kelly continues his springtime growth and junior Mustafa Jalil returns from injury. That would give the Bears three options, at least, though the well quickly runs dry. Sophomore Marcus Manley and converted end Harrison Willfey round out the rotation, such as it is.
Two linebackers coming off an injury-slowed spring could alter the two-deep in August. The first is sophomore Hardy Nickerson (65 tackles), a projected starter and the take-charge, call-out-signals leader on the second level, in my opinion. The second is junior Jason Gibson, a converted safety who could find a role on the outside in certain packages. A third linebackers, true freshman Devante Downs, is a 240-pound rookie with the athleticism to move quickly up the depth chart come fall camp. The starting group seems set, with Nickerson in the middle and junior Jalen Jefferson (64 tackles) and sophomore Michael Barton (64 tackles, 8.0 for loss) on the outside, but adding players like Gibson and Downs increases the Bears' depth – an issue a season ago. By and large, however, Cal is still too young on this second level to make a significant impact.
Opposing Pac-12 quarterbacks pen sonnets in affection for the Bears' abominable secondary. If your glass is half-full, that Cal returns the majority of last year's rotation should lead to a genuine improvement; if your glass is half-empty, well, more of the same means more of the same. Let's think optimistically, as always, and imagine a scenario where sophomore cornerback Cameron Walker (65 tackles) takes a massive step forward in his second season; junior cornerbacks Joel Willis and Stefan McClure stay healthy, pushing a slew of redshirt freshmen down the depth chart; senior Michael Lowe (67 tackles) plays an all-conference level, which could be a stretch; and junior safety Avery Sebastian bounces back from injury to patrol the back end. And if so? We're looking at a drastic improvement. Bet on one of those things happening, if any, and prepare for only a subtle improvement from one of the Pac-12's weakest units.
Special teams: Though Cole Leininger returns at punter, Cal will struggle mightily replacing Vincenzo D'Amazo's trustworthiness in the kicking game. Three options share top billing heading into the summer: sophomore Noah Bello, senior James Langford and redshirt freshman Matt Anderson. It won't be a smooth transition. Muhammad does nice work in the return game, should he not be unseated by one of Cal's many receivers. And what of the coverage teams? Outside of Oregon, which returned two punts for six, and USC, which took back three, things were just peachy.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Running back: One of the silliest misconceptions about Dykes' offense is that it ignores the running game. Totally incorrect. Dykes not only stresses the ground game but demands it for this offense to run at full capacity, as shown in simple terms at his previous stop: Louisiana Tech went 19-5 when rushing for 140 or more yards, 3-10 when not. It was largely tough sledding a season ago, though the Bears did find a groove late in the year; the offense averaged 144.2 yards per game from Washington through the finale, to little avail. Looking forward, Dykes is still searching for a thunder-and-lightning combination in the backfield, the sort of duo that can interplay hinging on the circumstances – one a big-play threat, the other a mudder – and balance out a pass-heavy offense.
The issue? It's a backfield crop loaded with dashers, not pounders, placing pressure on junior Daniel Lasco (317 yards) to deliver in a big-back role – one he'll fill but not one that fit his style a season ago, partly due to injuries. On the other hand, Cal does have speed: Khalfani Muhammad (445 yards) can fly, Jeffrey Coprich (156 yards) got his feet wet last fall and redshirt freshmen Austin Harper and Kenny Portera seem to the fit the mold. Another pair of newcomers, Tre Watson and Vic Enwere, will vault into the mix come August – Watson as a ballyhooed, perhaps every-down addition and Enwere as the bigger body the ground game desires.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Stanford: A win would be grand, but let's be pragmatic: Cal would be happy with a close loss – in 2014, at least. Of greater importance is getting off to a hot start, a possibility given the Bears' early-season slate. Cal's most winnable games come in the year's first five weeks: Northwestern, Sacramento State, Arizona, Colorado and Washington State. And the rest? Washington, UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, Stanford and BYU.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: The nation's stoutest schedule meets a team and program struggling through a transition, and the results should be predictably painful. As of today, given all that Cal has and needs, the Bears should be an underdog in every game but one – Sacramento State, though a few Pac-12 rivals could speak to the Hornets' peskiness in September. If an overly simplistic way to view the coming season, the schedule does paint a picture: Cal is the weakest program in what many view as the nation's elite conference, for one, and adds to this conference slate a pair of teams, Northwestern and Brigham Young, with expectations of six or more wins during the regular season. Speaking generally, the Bears are at least one full year behind the curve in comparison to nearly every FBS team on this slate, with Colorado the exception. More losses are coming.
But let's not ignore the bright spots. This is clearly a huge season for Goff, who can either cement his place as the Bears' four-year starter or find himself unseated, leading to another change under center. But when he's on – and when his teammates cooperate – Goff does give Dykes a promising signal-caller to serve as the foundational piece of the offense. The backfield has speed, at least, if no concrete rotation, and the receiver corps is the team's strongest grouping. You can even see some promise up front, should Adcock remain healthy and two linemen step up on the edges. One clear fact: Cal's offense will be better. How much better hinges on health, consistency and a settled two-deep by the end of August.
The defense is clearly in shambles, however. There's no pass rush, though Scarlett could provide an enormous boost. The interior of the line is a mess. There are three set starters at linebacker, though no proven depth in reserve – and the three top options still need to prove themselves against the Pac-12. The less said of the secondary the better, even if those redshirt freshmen and sophomores should develop nicely during the next two seasons. The kicking game takes a significant step back without D'Amazo. The bottom line: Cal is doing the right things – certainly off the field as well as on – but remains a full stride behind in the Pac-12. The Bears could end at 1-11, should go 2-10 but won't finish better than 3-9.
Dream season: The Bears go 3-0 in non-conference play and knock off Colorado and Oregon State to finish 5-7.
Nightmare season: Another 1-11 season, with that one win coming against Sacramento State.
Who's No. 115? The last coach to notch a winning season at this program won 37 games during his four years as a college defensive end.