• 2008 record: 9-4 overall, 6-3 in Pac-10 (4th)

  • Coach: Jeff Tedford, eighth year (59-30)

  • Big date: Oct. 3 vs. USC. Both teams could be ranked in the top five when they meet in Berkeley.

  • The difference makers: Tailback Jahvid Best is the country's returning leading rusher in yards per game (131.67) and can go the distance at any time. ... Syd'Quan Thompson is a lockdown cornerback who also is a dynamic punt returner. ... Defensive end Tyson Alualu registered six sacks last season and makes an impact in run defense. ... Quarterback Kevin Riley should improve with a more experienced receiving corps and a healthy offensive line.

  • Key departures: Alex Mack arguably was the nation's top center last season and was the 21st pick in the NFL draft. ... Linebacker Zack Follett had 101/2 sacks and 23 tackles for loss before moving on to the Detroit Lions. ... Linebacker Anthony Felder led the team with 93 tackles last year.

  • Keep an eye on: Wide receiver Marvin Jones missed most of last season with a knee injury but has risen to the top of depth chart. ... Linebacker Mike Mohamed is being counted on to anchor a linebacking corps that lost three starters.

  • Fresh face to watch: Freshman Isi Sofele gives the Bears a wide receiver who can stretch the field.

  • The hype: Cal is ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press preseason top 25 and was picked to finish second in the Pac-10 preseason poll. The Bears are the trendy pick to unseat USC.

  • The reality: The Bears will look a lot like last season unless they improve a passing attack that ranked 83rd nationally last year.

  • Lingering questions: Can Riley produce now that he doesn't have to look over his shoulder at Nate Longshore? Can Best stay healthy? Can the Bears' new linebackers fill the void?

  • Potential problem: The Bears play their two toughest Pac-10 games in back-to-back weeks — at Oregon on Sept. 26 followed by a home game against USC on Oct. 3.

  • Bottom line: If the Bears find a passing game to balance out their explosive running attack, they could win their first outright conference championship in 51 years.

  • FAN ESSENTIALS: Radio: 810-AM (Joe Starkey, Troy Taylor, Todd McKim); Tickets: 1-800-GOBEARS, calbears.com

    — Jonathan Okanes