Best Case-Worst Case: California
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Fourth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting from the top of our preseason Power Rankings and working down.
Up next: California
There were murmurs of discontent from a suddenly demanding California fan base when California coach Jeff Tedford named Nate Longshore his starting quarterback over Kevin Riley, but there were only boisterous cheers when Longshore led the Bears to a 41-10 victory over Michigan State at Memorial Stadium.
Even the Tree Sitters saluted the mistake-free day from Longshore, who completed 17 of 25 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns. "Longshore was, like, wow, really great -- standing like a fearless oak in the pocket and, you know, throwing that ball and stuff," said a Tree Sitter who asked to be called Smelly Muffin. "Are you going to eat your fat?"
It wasn't just Longshore, though. The speedy backfield tandem of Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen combined for 238 total yards, with both lining up as slot receivers and at tailback.
The new 3-4 defense also proved salty, with the Bears linebackers dominating the action.
Any residual bad taste from 2007 collapse was left behind when the Bears improved to 4-0, winning on the road at Washington State and Maryland and drubbing Colorado State at home. That set up a home showdown with 16th ranked Arizona State, which had fallen just short of an upset of top-ranked Georgia two weeks before.
This time the defense saves the day, relentlessly blitzing quarterback Rudy Carpenter and confusing the Sun Devils inexperienced offensive line, forcing three turnovers while recording four sacks. Though he wasn't as sharp as he was in the opener, Longshore didn't try to force throws when given a short field, and Best busted away for TD runs of 33 and 19 yards in the hard-fought 24-20 win.
Following a bye, the Bears play flat at Arizona but escape 33-30 when Jordan Kay connects on a 45-yard field goal with less than a minute left.
After an easy win over UCLA, the Bears square off with No. 10 Oregon, which is coming off a nailbiting victory over Arizona State.
Cal jumps to a 13-10 lead, but right before halftime, Longshore sprains his ankle on a sack by Ducks end Nick Reed. Kevin Riley comes off the bench.
In the third quarter, the Ducks offense asserts itself. Riley plays well, showcasing the mobility that Longshore lacks, but a late drive falls short when a Jerome Boyd sack forces a fumble at the Oregon 27 with 1:30 left. The Ducks kill the clock and win 28-24.
There's no time for mourning, though, with a trip to USC ahead. The talk all week is whether Longshore will play, and whether that's a good thing, recalling his struggles when he's played hurt in the past.
Riley takes the field in the Coliseum but little goes his way. The Trojans roll 44-10 and stay unbeaten in the conference.
Tedford announces Monday that Longshore will start at Oregon State, and the senior turns in one of the best performances of his career, shredding the Beavers with four TD passes in a 35-20 victory.
Then Longshore earns his way permanently back into Bears fans' hearts, trashing Stanford in the Big Game, a win that prevents the Cardinal from becoming bowl-eligible. A 50-27 win over Washington concludes the season, and the Bears accept a Holiday Bowl invitation opposite No. 12 Texas Tech.
In weeks leading up to the game, Tedford relentlessly plays highlights of Cal's embarrassing 2004 Holiday Bowl loss to an inferior Texas Tech team when the Bears were unhappy about losing a deserved BCS bowl invitation.
It works. The Bears grab five interceptions from Red Raiders quarterback Graham Harrell and waltz to a 42-27 victory.
The Nobel Prize winners on the Berkeley campus vote to have Tedford's "Genius" status restored.
Kevin Riley earns the opening-day nod over Nate Longshore, and he's greeted by frenzied cheers as he leads the Bears to a workmanlike 27-17 victory over Michigan State. Riley's mobility proves a plus as he scrambles for 45 yards and throws a touchdown pass after eluding pressure.
Riley starts fast the following weekend at Washington State, at least until Cougars end Kevin Kooyman blindsides him, causing a fumble that Andy Mattingly returns for a game-turning touchdown.
Riley suffers a concussion on the play, and Longshore comes in off the bench. He struggles at first but appears to be leading a late rally. Then, on first-and-10 at the Cougars 12 with 1:05 left, his lob on a fade route comes up short, and the Devin Giles interception completes the 28-24 upset.
Most of the following week, Riley appears likely to regain his starting spot at Maryland, but Tedford opts to go with a healthy Longshore. Healthy? Longshore sprains his ankle in the first quarter. Riley comes off the bench, but a sack just before halftime leaves him groggy.
Enter freshman Brock Mansion, who proceeds to hand the ball to Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen 25 times in the second half, and the Bears escape with a 24-17 victory.
Mansion has little trouble doing the same in a blowout win over Colorado State, but the results are different against 16th-ranked Arizona State. The Sun Devils stack the box, forcing Mansion to throw, and that results in three interceptions. Meanwhile, Rudy Carpenter repeatedly beats the Bears' blitzes, connecting with Mike Jones for three TDs and the Sun Devils roll 38-17.
Riley returns for the visit to Arizona, and the Bears prevail in a 45-41 barnburner, with Riley scrambling for the game-winner with 34 seconds left. After dispatching UCLA, Oregon comes to town.
It doesn't go well for the Bears. Riley is erratic and the defense can't stop the Ducks. Longshore enters late in the third quarter and leads a 75-yard TD drive, but he then re-injures his ankle on a sack from Will Tukuafu.
Oregon wins 44-27. The following week at USC falls apart quickly. Riley's again knocked out of the game, and a late TD pass from Mansion only prevents a Trojans shutout in a 33-7 decision.
Things go from bad to worse in a torrential downpour at Oregon State. The Bears 3-4 defense suddenly springs a leak and yields 139 yards rushing to Ryan McCants.
After losing three in a row, Cal needs to win one of its final two games to avoid Tedford's first losing season.
It doesn't come in the Big Game, as Stanford wins its second consecutive Axe with a 20-17 victory that frustrates even the Tree Sitters. "I always knew they should have started Longshore," a man who asks to be called Penguin Underpants says.
Needing a victory over Washington to secure a sixth win and bowl-eligibility, Tedford decides his best chance is Best and Vereen. And the speedy backs come through, rushing for a combined 265 yards against the woeful Huskies defense.
A 28-27 victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl gives the Bears a two-game winning streak to end the season.
On Jan. 5, Tedford is hired to coach the San Francisco 49ers. John Mackovic is hired to replace him on Jan 13.
The Counting Crows release an album on Jan. 29 called "Mr. Jones, I can't freaking believe we hired John Mackovic."
On Feb. 4, Stanford's recruiting class is ranked 8th in the nation. The Bears, 43rd.