Running With The Pac '12: Back In Memorial Stadium, Is Cal Also Back in Conference Contention?

BERKELEY CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Keenan Allen #21 of the California Golden Bears runs against Tyler Ahles #58 of the Colorado Buffaloes at California Memorial Stadium on September 11 2010 in Berkeley California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Before Oregon made its run to the pinnacle of the Pacific 12 Conference in the late 2000s, Jeff Tedford's Cal program appeared in line to challenge USC for West Coast supremacy.

The Golden Bears accounted for the Trojans' sole conference loss from 2003 until 2006, and very nearly denied USC its 2004 BCS championship (the NCAA would have the honors seven years later).

Instead of being Cal's arrival, the Aaron Rodgers-JJ Arrington Golden Bears were the apex. Tedford's teams have missed the postseason just once since 2003, but are consistently guilty of underachievement.

Years of failing to meet the expectations upon it has dropped Cal from national consciousness. Perhaps that's what the program needs to reemerge. The Golden Bears have not been frequently discussed as a contender in the Pac-12 North, if at all.

Media slotted Cal No. 4 in the division with 382 points, well behind No. 2 Stanford and Washington (533 and 502) and not even within shouting distance of favorite Oregon (732). Coming off a 7-6 finish and losing six players who were taken in April's NFL Draft, the lack of enthusiasm is warranted.

It's not shared within the program, though. Last season the Bears played their home games anywhere but, appearing in Candlestick and AT&T Parks while Memorial Stadium underwent wide scale renovation. Cal returns to its home with fervor, said Tedford.

"Many of [the Cal players] talked about the excitement of getting back home and being back in a practice facility that we can practice at in our field, day in and day out," he said at Pac-12 Media Day. "To be able to come back in the north tunnel and play in that environment, that's so special at Memorial Stadium."

Cal adapted well to life on the road, going 5-1 in its designated home games despite the change. Now enjoying a true home field advantage might indicate an even more formidable trip to the Bay Area for opponents. Coming to Berkeley are conference foes Oregon, Washington, UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford, only one of which Cal defeated last year.

Road games -- true road games -- proved to be the Bears' undoing. Cal went from a 14.5 average margin of victory in designated home contests, to an 8.8 average loss margin elsewhere in the regular season. Drawing five home games in the Pac-12

Two of those road defeats, at Washington and Stanford, were by a combined 11 points and to teams slated ahead of the Bears in the pre-season poll.

Key for defying expectations will be establishing a more consistent offense -- a recurring theme in the Bears' recent run of humdrum finishes. Cal averaged 34.6 points per game in wins, but dipped all the way to 16.5 in losses. Only against Washington (23) and Stanford (28) did Cal crack 20 points in those six contests.

The return of 1000-plus yard rusher Isi Sofele to the backfield gives Cal a steady foundation off the rush, but establishing the ground game has been no struggle for Tedford's teams. Berkeley has run a steady stream of talented backs, from Arrington, to Marshawn Lynch, to Justin Forsett, then Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen. Now Sofele is the focal point, with the more powerful CJ Anderson operating in short yardage situations.

Cal has failed to pass with consistency since Rodgers left, and that's been a key reason for the Bears' slide into also-ran territory. Tedford has been complimentary of returning starter Zach Maynard and the off-season and touted his maturation.

"I have a lot of confidence in Zach," Tedford said. "I think the early struggles were about game management and I think that comes with experience and knowledge."

Maynard will once again have his No. 1 target to throw to in half-brother Keenan Allen. At over 1300 yards, Allen was among the best receivers not only in the conference, but the entire nation.

Marvin Jones was the next leading receiver on the corps, but after that production took a steep decline. But if redshirt freshman Maurice Harris has the same familial connection with Maynard as Allen and Maynard have, the Bears' aerial attack should improve.

Harris is their cousin.

Tedford said defensively is where he sees Cal shining. The Bears lost second round draft pick and 2011 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks, but return a talented secondary.

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