THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL season began with Jeff Tedford making a curious confession. The man who once avoided outside estimations of Cal's program was now acknowledging them. Inventorying them, in fact, and using them to broach with his players the concepts of goal-setting and addressing expectations.

Just a hunch: Those conversations were a lot more enjoyable in September, when Cal was ranked 12th in The Associated Press preseason poll, than they are in the wake of Wednesday's Poinsettia Bowl loss to Utah.

Cal met few, if any, expectations this season. Certainly not AP's — the Bears disappeared from the Top 25 even before their bowl game beatdown. Nor did they validate the preseason forecasts of ESPN (also 12th), The Sporting News (16th), CBSsports.com (17th) or Sports Illustrated (20th).

During a season in which the Pac-10 race was as wide open as ever, Cal lost its first two conference games and was never a factor. While the Bears participated in a bowl game for the seventh consecutive season, the Poinsettia qualified as a tumble down the cellar steps. And there they got spanked.

As a result, Tedford finds himself in another curious position. For the first time during his tenure at Cal, he's on the clock.

Not on the clock in the "Gentlemen, start your buyout cash call" sense. There still is a lot to like about his work, starting with the school-record streak of bowl appearances. He's also produced eight consecutive winning seasons, tying the school record set from 1918-1925. He has raised the football program's academic profile, an important bit of business that is often overlooked.


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No, he's on the clock as in: What's the plan after a season in which the program revealed concerning cracks and fissures never before apparent on his watch?

Not so much the whole preseason rankings thing. What are those based on, anyway? A coach's cheery optimism after spring ball? No need to hang our helmets on educated guesses when quantifiable criteria is available.

For starters, none of Tedford's other Cal teams scored as few points as this one did. Only twice in his first seven seasons did the Bears fail to score double digits in a game. This year it happened on consecutive Saturdays.

The concern: Offense is Tedford's forte. Yet there were times this season when his team looked lost.

Oddly enough, with the addition of explosive talents such as DeSean Jackson and Jahvid Best in recent years, the Bears' offense has become more combustible but less reliable. Thus, what happened in the Big Game last month — Cal controlling the ball by dominating the line of scrimmage — became the exception. More often, it seemed the Bears were flipping matches at a gas can, waiting for a big bang that never came.

Then there's the sixth-place finish in the Pac-10's year of parity. Only one of Tedford's Cal teams has finished lower.

The concern: Since Tedford's arrival, Cal has measured itself against conference kingpin USC. The Bears still can't get over on the Trojans — now it appears they've been surpassed by the Oregon schools, Arizona and, most painfully for them, Stanford.

Most concerning was the nature of Cal's defeats this season. During a nine-game stretch, Tedford experienced the three most lopsided losses he has known, plus another that tied for fifth on his Bottom Five list. The Poinsettia Bowl did not make the cut, but it was representative of the trend; after taking a 14-0 lead, Cal was outscored 37-13 over the final three quarters.

The concern: These were games in which the Bears were overwhelmed, unable or ill-equipped to handle what their opponents threw at them. That kind of failure transcends scheme, or play-calling, or injuries, or an opposing quarterback with a hot hand. On a basic level it suggests a deficiency in recruiting, preparation or both.

If you want to pull back further, the picture becomes even more stark. Before that infamous home game against Oregon State two seasons ago, Tedford was 48-20 at Cal. He and the program had achieved national relevance. The team was ranked third, seemingly on its way to No. 1.

Then quarterback Kevin Riley took off on his fateful run, delivering the Bears to a 34-game stretch in which they are 19-15.

In the end, it doesn't matter what others think of Cal. Tedford has created expectations here. The question of whether or not he can return to that standard of success is framing the 2010 season even as we speak.

Ticktock.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.