It all starts in the trenches.
The California Golden Bears have not had a good offensive line in years. In fact, you could probably go back to 2005 to point out the last solid offensive line that Cal had that could handle a decent pass rush from a good, even average defensive front. Alex Mack and Will Ta'ufo'ou covered up many of those deficiencies for a three year stretch, but since then the Bears have been at best average in pushing defenses back and beyond. Case #1 is Cal's struggles against USC--the Bears have lost their last seven meetings against the Trojans, and most of it has come from USC ROCKING Cal at the front year after year after year.
Cal returns three of five starters from last year's campaign. Senior fill-in right tackle Donovan Edwards gets replaced by the shifting Matt Summers-Gavin (from guard); how well Summers-Gavin can adjust to playing out of his natural position is anyone's guess. Chris Guarnero departs and is replaced by Dominic Galas; although Galas definitely carries the mean streak that Cal linemen have been looking for, he has only started a couple of games and it could take him some time to adjust to his position. The capable Mitchell Schwartz returns at left tackle, and Brian Schwenke and Justin Cheadle get the start at the guard spots. This is no one's idea of an overwhelming unit, so the Bears O-line will have to show they can handle their business on the field in a true test of wills against a competent front seven
It's unclear whether that test will come against Fresno State.
Fresno State loses their best pass rusher in Chris Carter; Carter was someone who could totally devastate an opposing unit with his sacking ability, racking up 55 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Replacing Carter is not going to be an easy thing to do. Logan Harrell might be a load to deal with inside, but he's going to be on his own.
However, the entire defensive line is on the thin side.
This unit looks very prone to the power game Cal used to dominate people with in the early years of the Tedford era.
At the second level in the linebacking corps, Fresno loses their veteran leader in the middle in Ben Jacobs. That leaves only Travis Brown and Kyle Knox as returning defenders; Brown should be solid and Knox should be their primary outside pass rusher. But just like the defensive line, this linebacking corps is on the very thin side, with none of the two-deep looking like they'll top 240 pounds (and Knox below 220). By contrast, every one of the starting Cal linebackers tops out at 240 or above.
This isn't technically a disadvantage. With the lack of weight means more pronounced speed, so Fresno could cause their mobility to disrupt the edges or elude blocks. However, if they get stuck on them on too many occasions and Cal starts flat out pancaking everyone, expect the Bears to break loose for some big gains with Isi Sofele, Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson and C.J. Anderson.
Jim Michalczik is back, so the Bears should be an improved unit. Expect the Bears to run that ball straight at Fresno early on and exploit the size mismatch up front. If the O-line struggles (and they better not struggle TOO much), then they might need additional blockers out there. With fullback Eric Stevens injured, Cal will have to use Will Kapp if they plan to run power, or maybe put one of the tight ends (probably Spencer Hagan) in the backfield as an H-back. It would not be surprising to see Cal use some tight end sets to try and keep Fresno guessing as to what type of play the Bears will run.
On the other side, Fresno will try to disrupt things as much as possible. Because they have no size advantage, the Bulldogs will try and use their speed and shoot through the line rather than engaging blockers straight up. This could also be a huge advantage in the passing game, since a quarterback probably won't have much time before Fresno's rushers get into the backfield.
Cal wasn't pushing around many defenses last season, so I can imagine you're a little skeptical at letting the Bears power that ball with just straight run plays. However, thanks to the new regimen pushed into place by new strength and conditioning coach Mike Blasquez, the unit has bulked up and is probably in much better shape than they were in previous seasons. Expect a faster and more athletic offensive line, but it's unclear if they've caught up with regards to technique, something they seemed to lack a lot when Steve Marshall was O-line coach.
If Cal can prove they can handle the front seven and the speedy pass rushing ability, then the Bears might try and go to the air with Zach Maynard. But Schwartz, Summers-Gavin, Galas, Cheadle and Schwenke dominating the line of scrimmage against Fresno's speedy front seven is the key to an offensive show or a slog in the Stick.