As we inch closer to the opening kickoff, we take a closer look at the main two football programs in the Bay Area to try and figure out what to expect from these teams. Today, we compare the offenses of the California Golden Bears and the Stanford Cardinal, and figure out which team is more likely to rack up the points on Saturdays.
Quarterback: As discussed last week, Andrew Luck is clearly the more physically talented quarterback. He has more upside and is a projected top 5 pick. Despite all I said about Luck's inexperience catching up to him, the strength of the rest of his offense should be good enough to rally around him and give him the time to perform successfully. Luck has all the tools he needs to upgrade to that next level--if he can learn to air out a more accurate deep ball and read coverages, he will be tough to beat.
Kevin Riley does have more experience and could benefit from the senior bump that comes from most college quarterbacks, but he has struggled mightily when the rest of the offense stagnates. He will need to improve his spotty footwork, bring up his release, and make better short and intermediate reads. He does possess a fairly accurate deep ball and can handle blitzes, so if he can get better protection this season, he can surprise a lot of pundits and media everywhere.
Running Backs: A big hole has been left behind at the Farm with the departure of Toby Gerhart. Newcomers Stepfan Taylor and senior Jeremy Stewart will battle to be the main option in the Cardinal's power game. Although the Cardinal offensive line should be more than up to the task for blocking up front, it's hard to see if they can be as effective as Gerhart's brute force was in getting between the linemen.
Cal has their own mini-bruiser returning. While Jahvid Best departs for Cal, Shane Vereen is no weak spot for the Bears. His ability to shed tacklers and slip through the holes should come in handy for a developing Cal offensive line and give them much needed yardage. Isi Sofele, Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson and Dasarte Yarnway provide steady support in case Vereen needs help down the line.
The only reason the Bears aren't way ahead in this category is fullback--Owen Marecic is currently the most skilled backfield blocker in the conference and possesses versatility to come out and catch out of the backfield. Cal is starting Eric Stevens and backing him up with Will Kapp, who have approximately zero meaningful playing experience.
Edge: Golden Bears.
Receivers/Tight Ends: On paper, the Cardinal receivers look better, with steady hand Ryan Whalen and exciting playmaker Chris Owusu returning, and with Luck passing to them it's easy to believe they'll have the better season. However, they're quite thin outside their starting two, with only Doug Baldwin being a reliable third option. Don't sleep on the Bears at receiver either. Marvin Jones is a budding star at receiver and Keenan Allen almost immediately earned first team reps; with quality depth behind them both experienced (Jeremy Ross and Michael Calvin) and fresh (Coleman Edmond). Again, a lot will depend on Riley being able to deliver the ball on time to his guys after always seeming a step off last season.
As for tight ends, the Cardinal have plenty of them, but it's hard to figure out their impact outside of the capable Coby Fleender. The Golden Bears have Anthony Miller, the likely All Pac-10 tight end and a dark horse All-American candidate who is a monster in run blocking and an intimidating pass catcher with incredibly soft hands. He's backed up by Spencer Ladner, an imposing figure who could see a lot of action in the two tight end sets the Bears are fond of running.
Edge: Golden Bears
Offensive Linemen: Other than the loss of their all Pac-10 right tackle Chris Marinelli, the Cardinal come back a mean, tough unit that won't be easy for any defensive line to fight through. They gave up only eight sacks in 2009 (second in the country) and unleashed Gerhart and notch up the 7th most efficient rushing attack in the country. David DeCastro and Andrew Phillips are the clear stars at both guard positions, a good sign for a rushing attack that utilized a lot of pulling backside guards to lead for the running back. Center Chase Beeler will push the middle and Jonathan Martin has plenty of experience protecting Luck's blindside. The main question is at right tackle, and whether Derek Hall can step into Marinelli's shoes.
Cal's unit should be better, but I'd say it's fair to be skeptical of how good they can be after last year's letdown performance. Mitchell Schwartz and Matt Summers-Gavin were the two best linemen for the Bears last season, and they've moved away from their previous positions (Schwartz from RT to LT, Summers-Gavin from LG to RT). The interior remains uncertain, with the current rotation of Brian Schwenke, Justin Cheadle, Chris Guarnero and Dominic Galas not exactly inspiring many Cal fans to believe they can rush the ball down anyone's throats.
The Golden Bears might have stronger depth at the skill positions, but lingering issues remain along the line and under center. When in doubt, you go with the unit that can protect the quarterback and block for the running backs, because a bad offensive line can render even the most talented receivers and running backs useless when the person in charge of getting them the ball gets put flat on his back. The Cardinal seem like the team with the slight edge on this side of the ball, although it's hard to be certain if they can maintain that advantage through the season.
Tomorrow: The Defense and Special Teams.