- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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We continue with our series looking at each Pac-12 team's nonconference opponents in 2014.
At Northwestern, Saturday, Aug. 30
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (55-46), ninth year
2013 record: 5-7, 1-7 Big Ten
Returning starters: 9 offense, 9 defense
Offensive headliner: After playing the last couple of seasons in a two-quarterback system, Trevor Siemian is the full-time guy. He has more than 3,700 yards and 20 touchdowns to his credit.
Defensive headliner: Remember Collin Ellis? You should. He had a pair of pick-sixes for the Wildcats in the second half of last year's game that ended up being the difference. Now he's making the transition to middle linebacker to replace the departed Damien Proby.
The skinny: After starting out 4-0 last year, the Wildcats went on to drop seven straight before closing out the season with a win over Illinois. Four of those losses were by a touchdown or less and two of them were in overtime -- including a triple-overtime loss to Michigan. With 18 starters coming back, surely there are some lessons learned about playing in close games.
Sacramento State, Saturday, Sept. 6
Coach: Jody Sears (interim), first year
2013 record: 5-7, 4-4 Big Sky
Returning starters: 10 offense, seven defense
Offensive headliner: Wide receiver DeAndre Carter caught 64 balls for 934 yards and matched the team record with 14 receiving touchdowns last season. He was recently named to the preseason All-Big Sky squad.
The skinny: This is not a team to be taken for granted. Recall, the Hornets topped Oregon State in the season opener in 2011 and then stung again by beating Colorado in 2012. But that was under Marshall Sperbeck, who suddenly resigned after seven seasons in April amid possible NCAA allegations. Still, you can't take an FCS team for granted -- especially this one and its recent history of upsets.
BYU, Saturday Nov. 29
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (82-34), 10th year
2013 record: 8-5, Independent
Returning starters: eight offense, six defense
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Taysom Hill is a dynamic dual-threat player. He started in every game last year and threw for 19 touchdowns while rushing for 10 more.
Defensive headliner: Safety Craig Bills returns after posting 78 tackles last season, which was second on the team. He's versatile enough to play either safety spot.
The skinny: BYU always seems to be good. But never great. Still, this is a big challenge for a Cal team that is looking to make strides in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes. The timing of the game is interesting. It's the season finale for both teams. By Nov. 29, the Bears could be a battle-tested group and Jared Goff could be having an all-conference season. Or, not. BYU has won just once in its last five games against the Pac-12.
Thoughts: There are a lot of "ifs-thens" going on in Berkeley these days. If some defensive players come back healthy ... if Jared Goff takes the next step and his receivers play to their potential ... if the change at defensive coordinator pays dividends ... if, if, if ... then Cal will be better. Being on the road for your first game of the season is always a challenge -- regardless of the opponent. But recall that Cal was in that game against Northwestern if not for a couple of tipped passes. You never want to overlook an FCS team. And with just one career win at Cal (against an FCS team), Sonny Dykes certainly won't be overlooking Sacramento State. As for the BYU game, it's almost impossible to make any sort of prediction, because it's likely both teams will look very different on Nov. 29 than they do when the season opens in August. We can all agree that a winless nonconference slate would be devastating to Dykes' rebuilding efforts. One win is expected. But a second or third would be considered tangible signs of improvement -- and probably a welcomed treat for the Cal faithful.
2hChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell