For a similar post, check out toughest pass defenses for Kevin Riley to throw into.
Third tier: The steppes
12. UC Davis. If we're struggling to block out these guys, bring your doggie bags for the rest of the games. You must be prepared for the pain.
11. Wazzu. The promising Travis Long returns; couple him with the recovering Kevin Kooyman and the Cougars should be able to generate decent enough pressure off the edge. It's the interior that should worry Coug fans--Dan Spitz shows the most promise and Brandon Rankin performed well in the spring, but they are still the remainders of a unit that was near last in the country in forcing sacks, tackles for loss or stopping the run.
The Cougar linebackers have plenty of experience under their belt, but no real success to go with it. Alex Hoffman-Ellis is the best guy they have, and he only had one sack last season.
This team is still in tough position up front, and unless Kooyman and Long are able to overrun opposing tackles, it's hard to see them as a formidable opponent (we have rushed for 700 yards on Wazzu the past two years, and if you believe in projections, we're on pace to go from 309 rushing yards to 227 this season. It's progress Cougars!).
10. Arizona. Arizona is losing five starters up front. I repeat, five starters out of seven will be all brand new. Not a good sign for a Wildcats team that also loses its defensive coordinator.
Still, there are things to like. Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed are both good pass rushers and will give Mitchell Schwartz and Donovan Edwards quite a challenge. Lolomana Mikaele and Sione Tuihalamaka take over the middle though, and while Mikaele has some experience as a starter, it just won't be the same as having Earl Mitchell manning and dominating the middle.
All the Wildcat linebackers from last season are gone--in their place are two JuCo transfers and a sophomore who played mostly special teams. Not a good sign. Two of their top four tacklers were those linebackers. Probably a worse sign. This'll put an inordinate amount of pressure on both the D-line and the D-backs to keep things in order. Can Cal exploit that? It'll all start by dominating the line of scrimmage and forcing the new linebackers to make plays.
9. Colorado. A surprisingly adequate unit considering the Buffaloes recent defensive struggles. There's definitely a lot of size up front. It's just going to be a matter of how much the power ability will overwhelm Cal's small-looking line. Curtis Cunningham returns to play the nose position, but he's not that imposing at 6'1 280 and probably can be handled fairly well in single coverage by the just as undersized Chris Guarnero. Marquez Herrod could make Summers-Gavin or Schwartz work, but Colorado lines up two sophomores up front and it's hard to see them not getting overwhelmed.
The linebacking corps should be better. Six linebackers are in place to rotate responsibilities, all of fairly strong ability, and although only one of them (B.J. Beatty) has seen major experience, this is a unit that can grow together and get better as the sesaon goes along. I don't know if they'll be ready by the second game of the season though.
Second tier: The trenches
8. UCLA. The loss of Brian Price drops them to the middle of the scale, but it's not that bad a place to be; the Bruins just have too much talent to be discounted totally. They just don't have much experience, especially along the line (
one starter returning in Datone Jones, another reserve in David Carter). The interior will be much easier to burst through.
The Bruins lost Reggie Carter and Kyle Bosworth at linebacker, but here the talent dropoff isn't as huge. Akeem Ayers (a serious candidate for Pac-10 Player of the Year) along with juniors Steve Sloan and Sean Westgate will not make things easy for running backs who get past the first level of defense--Ayers is very much capable of dominating the middle of the field the way Desmond Bishop once did. While the Bruins might not be gangbusting, they will make offenses work hard for those necessary three to four yard pickups in the run game.
Additionally, the Bruins had a huge defensive recruiting haul this past year (remember the name Owamagbe Odighizuwa?), and it wouldn't be shocking to see some of them crack the rotation this season. Still, Cal had their way with a much better UCLA defensive squad in LA, so we should be able to deal with them.
7. Nevada. The Wolfpack have Dontay Moch up front, the WAC Defensive Player of the Year. This'll be the first true test for Schwartz as he transitions back to left tackle; Moch had 6.5 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss last season, and should only improve. Ryan Coulson isn't too bad himself from the other side, but he still hasn't fully exploited his abilities yet. Otherwise, ugh. Nevada brings no depth with this unit (zero tackles among the non-starters in the D-line), and the Wolfpack love to rotate players in and out.
Nevada's linebackers (especially Brandon Marshall from the strong side) will do their best to sell against the run, so you could see opportunities open up for Riley looking deep if the interior line handles the rush well. The key will be how well Schwartz and MSG hold the edge against Nevada's best playmakers.
6. Washington. This is where concern starts ramping up.
The Huskies lose two All Pac-10 starters in Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and Donald Butler, but they should still be all sorts of solid up front. They have a true BEAST at tackle in 340ish pound Alameda Ta'amu, who could definitely occupy double teams and make life very difficult for Cal's interior guys (he certainly did last year). Cameron Elisara returns and is flexible enough that he might play tackle or end depending on the O-line he faces--he might play end to make the front-line big and try and bottle up the run game. The question will be pass-rushing, which is likely to fall back to earth after Te'o-Nesheim's departure.
The second line of defense is its own form of intimidating. Mason Foster is a stud; with junior Cort Dennison, they should be able to hold up the linebackers with Butler's departure. I'd say Cal will have to do their best to establish the run early, but if they can't also see if they can take advantage of the lack of pass rush to get Riley going early on. This'll be a big test for the interior (especially Guarnero, who's going to need some help guarding Ta'amu) on Senior Day.
5. Furd. The Cardinal defense has evolved from pathetic to slightly pathetic to "hey, they actually might be good this year". The front seven has been wiped of the Walt Harris-types, and with a new 3-4 in place could actually make people fear them with their front seven. The defensive line looks especially good--Sione Fua at 6'2 307 should be at just the right dimension to anchor the middle of the line, and Thomas Keiser and Matt Masifilo should put it together in their junior seasons to make this a stout 3 man lineup up front.
The key will be linebacker. Shayne Skov should break out and have an All Pac-10 worthy season and will probably make contact with Vereen at least a few times on Big Game Saturday. Can Owen Marecic handle playing two-ways as a fullback and a linebacker? He was highly underrated last season in letting loose Toby Gerhart--now he has to bring his physicality to taking down other running backs and shedding off the type of blocks he usually creates.
With this young, athletic and energetic unit, the Cardinal should be better against the run this year. The question remains how well can they hold themselves against the pass, and that'll be the difference to how far this defense goes.
First tier: The DMZ
4. Oregon State. UCLA had Brian Price last year. Oregon State has Stephen Paea this year. He has All-American written all over him, and he'd be certain to attain those honors if he played ANYWHERE but Oregon State.
As stated in the pass defense breakdown, the question will be the linebacking corps, who loses both Keaton Kristick and David Pa'aluhi. On the other hand, the Beavers defense seems to be the closest thing to personnel-independent as you can get in the conference. They've plugged unknowns and retreads into David Barker's 4-3 gap cancellation scheme for years and produced stellar results every season.
I wouldn't be surprised if Cal tries out a similar gameplan to that UCLA game to stay out of Paea's way: Exploit the outside runs, attack the edges, and try and take advantage of uncertain linebackers rather than praying for Chris Guarnero and Justin Cheadle to lock up Paea.
I wouldn't be surprised if that fails. That tends to happen for us against Oregon State.
3. Arizona State. ASU loses two senior linebackers in Mike Nixon and Travis Goethel...and they get replaced by two experienced juniors in Shelly Lyons and Brandon Magee. Add in another year of experienced for the utterly scary Vontaze Burfict and this linebacking corps shouldn't drop off too much.
The defensive line loses almost nothing outside of Dexter Davis--Lawrence Guy is a 300 pound nose tackle who will almost certainly demand double teams, and 300 pound Saia Falahola will do the same on the other side at the other tackle slot. Cal's run offense only managed 57 yards in Tempe, its second lowest of the season, and were shut of the end zone for most of the last three quarters. It looks again as if we'll have to hope ASU isn't able to get to Riley in crucial situations, because their inability to generate pressure off the edge allowed him to step into the pocket (or move out of it freely) and deliver some solid balls with confidence.
Arizona State is always a tough team to deal with up front, and I expect a VERY tough game coming off the USC slugfest. Speaking of which...
2. USC. Let's see. You have likely first round draft pick Jurrell Casey lining the front. You have a monster in Hebron Fangupo returning from injury (and he was sorely missed against Oregon and the Furd--those would've been much different games if he were in there) clocking in at 6'2 310 manning the other tackle position. The defensive ends are a little bit 'uncertain', if by 'uncertain' you mean uncertain to wreak total havoc on the edge. Both Armond Armstead and Nick Perry are plenty talented, but both struggled with injury last season. Edge pressure should worry you a little bit less than the interior dominance.
At linebacker, you have two seniors in Malcolm Smith (their version of Mike Mohamed) and Michael Morgan (their more athletic version of Mychal Kendricks). Both should be able to fill in the gaps the defensive tackles should generate from double teams. Middle linebacker Chris Galippo was one of their bright spots last year...and he's in danger of losing his starting role to the #1 recruit of 2009, Devon Kennard. It's the kind of dilemma that disgusts college football fans elsewhere, since they'd probably both be earning All-American honors on separate teams.
Meet the new Trojan Wall. Is Shane Vereen capable of being that Trojan horse?
1. Oregon. This is the best linebacking corps in the conference (Casey Matthews, Spencer Paysinger, Josh Kaddu, Boseko Lokombo, with Paysinger's understudy Michael Clay off the bench for good measure). A strong rushing defensive end in Kenny Rowe. A just as capable tackle in Brandon Bair trying to clog up the middle. As we saw in 2008 and 2009, you'd take a strong linebacking base and a decent but somewhat flawed defensive line rather than the other way around, and the Ducks might have achieved front seven nirvana with the unit they have up front.
This is pretty much the same front seven that shut Cal out last season (the 3 points came after a fumble and a subsequent drive that went sack, incompletion, incompetion). The Cal offensive line has to bring it's A-game to this one after getting confused and beaten to the ball at almost every aspect of last year's Autzen Massacre. (Better playcalling by Andy Ludwig would also help.).
Luckily, this one's at home. Also, if Cal's offensive line shows greater athleticism off the snap, they might match up better against them than anyone else and turn the tables on Nick Aliotti's generally aggressive defenses.
The question is, if they match up well against Oregon, how well will they match up against everyone else?