BERKELEY — After one season free of lofty preseason expectations, Cal's football program once again finds itself the subject of high praise from college football prognosticators as the beginning of training camp nears.
The Bears, who open camp on Aug. 7, find themselves ranked in the top 25 of every preseason publication to hit the newsstands. Most polls have Cal ranked somewhere between Nos. 10-15.
Cal's players have spent the summer going through their usual offseason workouts, aware of the expectations and focused on living up to them.
"Expectations are high," Cal quarterback Kevin Riley said. "But we've been in this position before. We have a lot of guys on the team who have been a part of that.
"We know it's going to take some work, but we know we have potential. We just have to do it. You can talk about it, but you have to do it."
After being ranked in The Associated Press preseason top 25 for four consecutive years, the Bears entered last season out of the initial rankings. That followed a colossal disappointment in 2007, when Cal started 5-0 and climbed to No. 2 in the country only to finish the season 7-6.
"We're aware of what people are saying about us and where we're supposed to finish, but at the same time, we know that doesn't mean very much at all," Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed said. "Two years ago, we were No. 2 in the nation, and look what happened.
"We're just staying focused and working hard. We're going to take it week by week and see where it takes us. That's the only thing you can do."
The Bears went 9-4 last season, defeating Miami in the Emerald Bowl. Many experts believe their experience (16 returning starters) will result in a return to Pac-10 contention.
Cal became a more defensive-oriented team last year and could have an even better defense than the one that ranked in the top 25 nationally last season.
The Bears switched to the 3-4 defense last year, and it worked wonders. Despite the loss of star linebackers Zack Follett, Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder, Cal may be even harder to handle, as it gets more comfortable with its new base philosophy.
"We've had a full year with the system," Mohamed said. "Last year, I think it took the first couple games to see if it actually was going to work and what adjustments the offenses were going to make. This year, we have an idea, so we're a lot farther along. There are more options."
With the return of Pac-10 rushing champion Jahvid Best and a deep offensive line, the Bears need to improve their passing attack to have a complete offense.
Riley and all the Cal quarterbacks have spent extra time this offseason working with the receivers, who last year were all playing their first full season of college football.
"We've been throwing a lot more this summer than in past summers, and you feel like you're starting to get into a rhythm with the routes the receivers are running and the timing of their routes," Riley said. "We're definitely improved. I don't know if we're there yet. It's way better than it was. To be where we want to be, it's going to take more."