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. 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 - 10 Defense - 6
2012 Record: 1-11 (0-9 Pac-12)
Coach: Sonny Dykes, 2nd year
Northwestern will look to open the season with another victory against Cal, this time at home in Evanston. The Wildcats defeated Cal 44-30 in a back-and-forth affair at Berkeley to kick-off last season. Cal struggled in Sonny Dykes' first year at the helm. Their only victory came in week 2 as the Golden Bears edged out Portland State 37-30. They continued to fall to Ohio State and all nine of their conference opponents. Seven of Cal's eleven losses came by 20 points or more, and the Nov. 2 loss at home to Arizona was the only one within single digits. The Golden Bears finished last in the conference and allowed 45.9 points per game, ranking 125th in the country. Dykes had his work cut out for him implementing a new system with a very young team and freshman quarterback in Jared Goff. 2013 was rock bottom for Cal, but it was part of rebuilding mode that they had to endure.
Cal's offense depends tremendously on moving the ball through the air. Quarterback Jared Goff threw for over 3500 yards in his freshman season, helping the Golden Bears finish 11th in the FBS in passing yards per game. Goff spread it around to his receivers as 11 Golden Bears totaled 100 or more receiving yards. Ten offensive starters will return in 2014, including their top two receivers Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs. Dykes likes to spread the love on the ground too. Three different backs got 67 or more carries in 2013, two of whom return for 2014. Cal's strength is passing though, and they will use lots of four and five receiver sets to get the passing game going.
The Golden Bear defense is bound for another dismal year. They return just six starters on a defense that was almost last in points allowed for the entire FBS. Opponents scored on 87 percent of their trips to the red zone against Cal and 67 percent of those red zone trips went for touchdowns. On the bright side for the Golden Bears, they return six of their top seven tacklers. Safeties Cameron Walker and Michael Lowe, who were the team's top two tacklers, will lead a veteran secondary. The defensive line, however, loses three of its four starters in the 4-3 scheme. Opponents may continue to run all over Cal due to an unexperienced front likely to lose the battle at the line of scrimmage.
Three players to know
Jared Goff, QB - The first true freshman quarterback in Cal history broke school records for single season passing yards, total offense, passes completed and passes attempted. He also threw for 450 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Northwestern in his college debut. Goff will likely be the man under center in Berkeley for years to come.
Chris Harper, WR - Harper has totaled almost 1400 receiving yards in just two seasons at Cal. The 6-foot-1 junior wideout caught 70 passes and 5 touchdowns last season and should continue to be Goff's top target in a deep receiving corps.
Jalen Jefferson, OLB - A young defensive front will require leadership from its most experienced linebacker. Jefferson, a junior playing at the SAM spot, totaled 64 tackles and 3 sacks last year. He will be big in stopping the run game and the pass rush since Cal only got 18 sacks in 2013, compared to 34 by its opponents.
Behind enemy lines: Pac-12 blog Ahead of the Pac writer Grant Hawkins gives best and worst case scenarios for Cal this season:
"Best Case Scenario: Jared Goff takes strides in his second year as a starter under Sonny Dykes offense, and Cal becomes one of the higher octane offenses in the country, especially through the air. The defense shows signs of improvement under first year defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, as the experience gained last year from some of the younger players proves key.
Worst Case Scenario: The injury bug that riddled many of the key players from 2013 hits again, as Cal is forced to play many players not yet ready for starting roles. Jared Goff has a sophomore slump, and the defense remains as bad as it was in 2013.
Season Prediction: (3-9) The Golden Bears will show signs of improvement in Sonny Dykes second year, but the difficult schedule and lack of talent and depth will still make it very difficult for Cal to win a lot of football games in 2014. I predict wins over Sacramento State, Colorado, and BYU, all at home."
Cal isn't going to remain in the Pac-12 cellar for long. They have a strong program, rich history and new coach ready to build a winner. That said, this season probably won't look much different from the last. Cal puts a lot of points on the board, but they give them up just as easily. The Golden Bears are still very inexperienced and learning Sonny Dykes' system. They have to play a difficult schedule again, which includes BYU and Northwestern in the non-conference. Season openers can be unpredictable. But if Northwestern comes prepared to contain the passing game, the 'Cats should be in position to open the season with a victory.