|USC Legends News|
Sure, it's a big game for the Bears -- at stake will be their top-25 ranking, their national reputation and Marshawn Lynch's Heisman Trophy candidacy -- but it's not their biggest. That comes Nov. 18, at USC.
Without winning that game it's hard to envision the Bears winning the Pacific-10 Conference and playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1959.
It's also hard to envision the Bears having a better chance of dethroning mighty USC than it has this season.
Thursday, at Pac-10 media day, Cal was picked second to USC in the preseason media poll; the Bears received seven first-place votes to the Trojans' 18. (Stanford was picked ninth.)
Cal has its best mix of talent, experience and depth since Tedford took over in 2002. The Bears return 16 starters, have several preseason All-Americans, and are a lock to open the season in the top 15.
"Cal has a lot of good players back, and they have some big stars, as well,'' Arizona Coach Mike Stoops said when asked to assess the title chase. ``And Oregon has played very consistent.''
Toss in Arizona State, and there are at least three teams capable of challenging USC -- and that's three more than last year.
The three-time defending league champions must replace quarterback Matt Leinart, the 2004 Heisman winner; tailback Reggie Bush, the 2005 Heisman winner; and tailback LenDale White, who scored 26 touchdowns last season. That's not easy, no matter how many five-star recruits you have on the depth chart.
"Any time you have the positions, like quarterback and tailback, that they're replacing, there's a learning curve,'' Tedford said. "Like us last year.''
When USC Coach Pete Carroll reached the podium Thursday, he compared these Trojans to his 2003 team, which had to replace its starting quarterback (Heisman winner Carson Palmer) and its defensive leader (safety Troy Polamalu). That team responded by winning 12 games, beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl and claiming half the national championship.
"This is an opportunity to show we have staying power,'' Carroll said. ``This team is the culmination of three big-time recruiting years.''
The Trojans are stocked at receiver and on defense but have much to prove on the offensive line and at quarterback and in the backfield. The favorite to replace Leinart, John David Booty, missed all but one spring practice because of a herniated disk in his back that required surgery. The backup, Mark Sanchez, is a redshirt freshman. And the presumptive starter at tailback, junior Chauncey Washington, has just 19 career carries after being academically ineligible in 2004 and 2005.
How does Cal compare? Very well, actually.
The Bears return eight starters to what should be their best defense in Tedford's tenure, and they're loaded at receiver and tailback. The questions are on the offensive line and, like USC, at quarterback.
Sophomore Nate Longshore will be given every opportunity to win the job he held last season for one quarter. (He suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the opener against Sacramento State.) Longshore's toughest competition will come not from Steve Levy but from senior Joe Ayoob, who incurred the wrath of Cal fans with his inconsistent play last fall.
Ayoob, who transferred from City College of San Francisco, was clearly overwhelmed by the speed of the game and the size of the playbook. If he finds a comfort zone and if Longshore continues to develop -- reasonable expectations, given Tedford's track record -- then Cal could have two effective passers.
Then again, Tedford doesn't need either quarterback to make big plays. He just needs them to avoid bad ones.
"This team has the potential to accomplish quite a bit,'' Tedford said. "We have a lot of experience . . . a lot of skill on both sides of the football.''
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