The college football  season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.
Can Cal Beat Stanford and Washington in the 2012 Pac-12 North Standings?
Scott Chong, CaliforniaGoldenBlogs.com , (@GoldenBlogs )
Cal, UW, and Stanford all have some big question marks heading into this next year. Generally speaking, going with the best quarterback is a good starting point for predicting how the Pac-12 will shake out. If he can stay healthy, Keith Price might be one of the top QBs in the league. He'll have new WRs and a shaky defense, however. It's hard for me to consider Stanford as a contender because they'll be breaking in a brand new quarterback. As much as I hate to say it, Luck made that offense look a lot better than their talent-level, particularly at the skill positions.
For Cal, the biggest question marks are the offensive line, new inside linebackers and safeties, and consistent quarterback play. Normally, you would expect a senior quarterback with a season of starting experience to be solid. But Zach Maynard was so inconsistent last year that we still don't know which guy we'll get. If we get the happy-feet, locking-on, turn-over machine, it'll be another 7 win (+/-1) season. If we get the steady and accurate game manager that we saw during the late season win streak, then we have a shot to be competitive with UW. Of course, quarterback play won't matter if we don't solidify our offensive line play. We'll have at least two new starters, and might also need a new center if last year's starter can't learn to snap the ball consistently.
David Fox (@DavidFox615 )
Cal can challenge for second place in the Pac-12  North, but I’m not sure if that’s a reflection on the Bears’ own merits as a contender or potential flaws with Stanford and Washington. Stanford likely will stumble without Andrew Luck. The question is how far. Will Stanford win nine games or take a nose dive? For Washington, the assumption is the defense will improve, but what if the Huskies continue to perform like the team that allowed 777 yards to Baylor in the bowl game? Cal might not be a contender for the Pac-12 championship, but the Bears could at least make things interesting in the division if Zach Maynard plays like he did in September. And don’t forget: Cal lost by single digits on the road to both Washington (by 8) and Stanford  (by 4). Both of those games are back in Berkeley this year.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall )
Absolutely, Cal can challenge in the Pac-12 North this fall. But quarterback Zach Maynard will have to play better football if the Bears are going to compete for anything in 2012. Through the first eight games last fall, he tossed 10 interceptions against only 12 touchdowns. He showed better care of the football over the final five games, throwing only two interceptions to go with five touchdowns. Cal turned to the running game over that stretch and went 3-1 to finish the regular season because of it. The rapport Maynard has with superstar wideout, and half-brother, Keenan Allen is obvious and the connection should be one of the nation's best combos. But Jeff Tedford needs his quarterback to play within the offense and undoubtedly wants to lean on the ground game.
Filling the gap left by Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks will be difficult. More pressing might be the rebuilt coaching staff. Tedford had to replace some of his brightest and best young minds when Washington pilfered his regime of Tosh Lupoi and Eric Kiesau. With his rear end firmly placed on the hot seat, motivation should not be an issue for the winningest coach in Cal history. The good news? The Bears get Stanford, Washington and Oregon — the top three teams in the division — in the shadows of Tight Wad Hill this fall.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven )
With Stanford losing Andrew Luck and the uncertainty surrounding Washington's defense, I think the door is open for California  to challenge for second place in the North. There’s no question 2012 is going to be an important season for head coach Jeff Tedford. The Golden Bears are just 12-13 over the last two years and have not posted a double-digit win total since 2006. There’s a lot to like about California going into 2012, as the renovations to Memorial Stadium are complete and the roster has some quality talent waiting to step into playing time after back-to-back top-15 recruiting classes. The schedule features tough non-conference matchups against Nevada and Ohio State, but division foes Washington, Oregon and Stanford will all visit Berkeley. The biggest question mark facing California will be quarterback Zach Maynard. Although he finished the year with more touchdowns (17) than interceptions (12), he needs to be more consistent. The offense also needs to develop more receivers outside of Keenan Allen. Although the defense loses six starters, this unit has plenty of talent and shouldn’t be an issue. The opportunity is definitely there for California, but I’m going to guess this team won’t be much better on offense and will fall short of finishing second place in the Pac-12 North.
Ted Lee, Staff Writer, BearInsider.com 
Although the Bears finished 7-6 last season – they played some of their best opponents very well on the road for a half last season – Washington, Oregon, Stanford – but as was the case with Solomon Grundy, sometimes a half just isn't good enough. This season, the Bears return all of their top offensive playmakers while other top teams in the Pac-12 North have suffered major losses, and at long last, they'll get to break in a newly refurbished California Memorial Stadium – something that's been on the boards to various degrees since head coach Jeff Tedford began in 2002.
Following a topsy-turvy offseason which saw the California Golden Bears on the verge of landing three five-star recruits and a top 10 recruiting class only to see it slip away with the departure of defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi to the Washington Huskies, the Bears have a lot to look forward this season. On offense, they return starting quarterback Zach Maynard, who threw for 2,990 yards last season and 17 touchdowns, and tailback Isi Sofele, who ran for 1,322 yards. Perhaps the biggest offensive weapon the Bears have will be 6-foot-3 wide receiver Keenan Allen, Maynard's half-brother, who had 98 catches for 1,343 yards and will be highly watched by NFL scouts this season. But if the Bears are to improve upon last season's record, they'll have to find successful replacements on defense as they have to replace two starting defensive lineman, both inside linebackers, including Pac-12 defensive player of the year Mychal Kendricks, and both starting safeties as well. They can take some encouragement from the fact that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast rotates his personnel frequently during the game so that many of this year's replacements will have had substantial playing time. Add to that kicker Vince D'Amato, whose extra points should be far less adventurous than they were last year, and the Bears are well-positioned to pull off a few surprises in 2012.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman )
Cal has a chance at 2nd place in the Pac-12’s North division with Stanford losing Andrew Luck and Washington  still trying to fix its defense, but I would not predict the Bears to finish that high. They do return some exciting skill players in potential All-America wideout Keenan Allen and running back Isi Sofele, but there were some key personnel losses that Jeff Tedford’s club suffered from last season. Cal lost its best offensive lineman (Mitchell Schwartz), defensive lineman (Trevor Guyton), the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year (linebacker Mychal Kendricks), both starting safeties (Sean Cattouse and D.J. Campbell) and two solid specialists (kicker Giorgio Tavecchio and punter Bryan Anger). That’s a ton of experience to be without when the Bears make September trips to Ohio State and USC. Cal does get division foes Oregon, Stanford and Washington at home, but the gap between the Bears and the Ducks and Cardinal still looks large to me. Stanford will have a nasty defense, and Washington should be improved with a revamped coaching staff that includes two Cal defectors - Tosh Lupoi and Eric Kiesau. If quarterback Zach Maynard can play less erratic, like he did last November, then the Bears have a chance to be very good on offense. However, the defense will take a step back after losing its best players. I see Cal as a 7-5 club overall, finishing third or fourth in the North.
Where will Athlon predict Cal to finish in the 2012 Pac-12 standings? Check back in May as Athlon's 2012 Top 25 will be released starting on May 1.
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