Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up to each game. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.
Returning starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6
2012 record: 3-9 (2-7 Pac 12)
Coach: Sonny Dykes, 1st year
The last season of the Jeff Tedford era went about as well as that description makes it sound. Which is to say, not well. The Golden Bears won just three games, two of them in conference, and ended the season with a fifth place finish in the Pac-12 North. Brighter moments included a seven-point loss at Ohio State, where three missed field goals and a few defensive lapses cost Cal a potentially groundbreaking nonconference win. Another pleasantly surprising moment from Cal’s otherwise dismal 2012 season? A 43-17 drubbing of Pac-12 South champion UCLA. On the whole, it was a regrettable year for the Golden Bears, and Tedford caught the biggest share of the blame as a result. Change was in order.
Still no word on Cal’s quarterback situation: the battle between junior Austin Hinder, freshman Jared Goff and redshirt freshman Zach Kline will be decided during preseason camp. Kline appears to be the frontrunner as of now. Junior tailback Brandon Bigelow is an explosive runner who, after watching top backs CJ Anderson and Isi Sofele graduate, will get more touches and more opportunities to showcase his game breaking speed this season. More than any specific personnel changes, though, the most important thing to know about Cal’s offense this season is that whatever preconceived notions you may have had about the Golden Bears under Tedford are mostly irrelevant. New coach Sonny Dykes is implementing an up-tempo spread offense, which – for lack of a more detailed X’s-and-O’s discussion – means lots of four and five-receiver sets, lots of plays and, if everything goes well, more points than Cal was able to score last season.
Shifting to an up-tempo offense isn’t the only major scheme change Cal is implementing this season. It’s also moving from a 3-4 to a base 4-3 under the watch of new coordinator Andrew Buh, who previously served as the linebackers coach at Wisconsin. The Golden Bears have the right mix of personnel to make the formation change as seamless and as comfortable as possible. Senior tackle Deandre Coleman and converted end Mustafa Jalil will anchor the defensive line, while Khairi Fortt (a Penn State transfer who sat out 2012 with a knee injury) will team with top returning tackler Nick Forbes Jr. to hold down the linebacking corps. The secondary is arguably the greatest area of concern, having lost cornerbacks Steve Williams and Marc Anthony, as well as safety Josh Hill.
Three players to know
Brandon Bigelow, Junior RB – The legacy of productive running backs under Tedford is impressive: J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen all punched through the 1,000-yd threshold. Bigelow has the speed to become Dykes’ first 1000-yd rusher; he averaged 9.80 yards per carry on 44 attempts last season.
Deandre Coleman, Senior DT – Last season evinced an unusually poor performance for an otherwise stout Golden Bears defensive line over the past decade. Switching to a 4-3 could get Cal back on solid footing, and Coleman, who finished with 48 tackles and three sacks last season, will need to be disruptive at the point of attack.
Chris Harper/Bryce Treggs, Sophomore (s) WR – If you watched Louisiana Tech last season, you have a pretty good sense of the type of attractive offensive flair Dykes should inject into Cal’s system this season. The tempo will be revved up, passes will soar deep downfield, and two of Cal’s top returning receivers should benefit handsomely.
Behind enemy lines: Bay Area News Group Beat Writer Jeff Faraudo (@CalBearsBANG), on what you can expect from the Golden Bears this season:
"On the heels of a dreadful 3-9 season that resulted in coach Jeff Tedford's ouster after 11 mostly successful campaigns, there is a hopeful buzz in Berkeley about the 2013 Golden Bears. Also great uncertainty.
The Bears return with new coach Sonny Dykes, whose Louisiana Tech team last season led the nation in scoring. At this point, there are more questions than answers. Cal broke spring camp without having named a starting quarterback, so choosing one among the three young finalists will be job one in fall camp.
Dykes was encouraged by what he saw in the spring, especially along the offensive line, which underperformed most of 2012. The defense features six returning starters but has questions in the secondary.
Cal's season opener at home against a solid Northwestern squad will be a critical barometer because a defeat could easily translate into a 1-3 start. The Bears face Ohio State in Week 3, then open the Pac-12 schedule the following week at Oregon.
This figures to be a year where Dykes tries to put pieces in place and get the offense clicking with his uptempo, no-huddle attack. How will it all add up? There will be progress, but it's hard to envision any scenario that leads to better than a 6-6 record."
Projecting how a team will play under a new coach is never easy. I expect Cal to improve from last season’s disappointing campaign, and even if they don’t see a huge bump in wins or qualify for a bowl game, the playmaking verve of Dykes should at the very least make the Golden Bears more exciting. Moving away from the football side of things, it might interest you to know that Cal is uprooting its old uniforms for some new, sleek, vibrant threads this season. In fact, Cal is changing its entire “brand identity” in an effort to create aesthetic unity across all sports. Northwestern fans can empathize – the Wildcats dropped their old Adidas kits for new Under Armour gear just last season.