I'll have a breakdown of what I saw last night later on, most of which is x and o stuff, personnel, and such. For now, I want to address the more fundamental issue of scheduling and what these types of games have exposed about this program under Tedford. Make no mistake, I am not blaming the loss on scheduling. But clearly Cal under Tedford cannot handle these types of non-conference games and Tedford needs to recognize that. If he can't, Barbour needs to check him and step in, because these losses are momentum killers for a program trying to establish itself nationally.
So two things there: (1) why shouldn't Cal schedule these games, and (2) what kind of non-conference games should Cal schedule?
1. Why Cal shouldn't schedule these kinds of non-conference games.
First off, for whatever reason, Tedford can't seem to get his players ready for these non-conference games where Cal is favored. By "ready," sometimes it's lack of focus and motivation. Sometimes it's crappy game plans that put them in terrible position during games, leaving them shocked when what they're doing isn't working against a perceived lesser opponent. Sometimes it's lack of proper adjustments when it becomes clear the team has underestimated or poorly planned for an opponent and things are going badly. Sometimes, it's a combination. Whatever it is, Tedford and his staff seem to really step on their dicks in these non-conference games.
And don't get me wrong: it's not that his teams are taking other teams lightly. If anything, they are over-stating how good the other team is. Rather, it's that they aren't coming in with the right mindset and preparation. It seems like it's always something different specifically, but it's always the same general thing.
Letting Da'Rell Scott run wild vs. MD.
Letting Robert Meachem run wild vs. Tenn.
Letting Kaepernick run wild vs. Nev.
Throwing pick six vs. Nev.
Letting Decker have a career day vs. Minn.
Not matching the other team's intensity in one or more phases.
Being unable to run the ball on the road...ever.
The list goes on and on.
Second, and this is really not Tedford's fault, teams always seem geeked up to play Cal. Cal always seems to be ranked and hyped, and always favored in these non-conference games. Opposing players and coaches always seem to quoted as saying Cal is a benchmark game for them. And for whatever reason, these teams always seem to be coming off something disappointing and trying to prove that they're back. MD coming off the MTSU loss. Tenn coming off the disappointing end of the prior season. Nevada trying to break the streak of losing to BCS teams.
But even though this is not Tedford's fault, he needs to realize this, and either figure out how to overcome being the target, the way coaches like Carroll are able to (which is really difficult to do, and frankly he's shown he can't do it); or, more reasonably, Cal needs to call a spade a spade and stop scheduling these effing games. By "these games," I'll explain in a minute.
Third, and people need to accept this, Cal does not have the talent across the board to overcome the two aforementioned issues. I've said for years that until Cal gets an all-conference caliber QB and dominating OL (or finds another offense that can churn out the hard yards), they can forget about winning the conference. And again, while recruiting success is on Tedford, this is less a complaint about lack of talent, and more about recognizing your limitations.
Cal is a decently talented, athletic team. But they lack elite players at critical positions, namely the positions that are critical components of almost every play: QB, OL, LB. And they have for some time. The one "brick and mortar" area in which they excel talent-wise is DL. WR, corner, safety, TE, and even RB, are not enough, because those players can be taken out of plays, and are so reliant on other things happening. It is easier to neutralize Jahvid Best or Keenan Allen than a dominant OL or a great QB. OL and QB are involved critically in every play. So are LBs.
These are the players you lean on when you walk into a trap game, when you need to throw cold water on a hot opponent. And Cal doesn't have them. Again, Tedford and Barbour need to recognize this and schedule accordingly.
2. What kinds of games should Cal schedule (and not schedule)?
Marquis, historically top-15 programs, or cupcakes. Period. No A- teams, no B+ teams, no B- teams. A teams and C teams, nothing in between. No Fresno States, no Marylands, no Northwesterns, no Texas Techs, no Kentuckys, no North Carolina States, no Georgia Techs, no Kansases, no West Virginias, no BYUs, no Nevadas, no Utahs. You get the idea.
Two asterisks: Boise and TCU are currently A teams, and are top-15 teams. But I don't care what everyone says, there is still very little mileage out of beating them, versus a stigma, however minor, from losing to them. And I still believe they hold a strange mental advantage over non-conference opponents. Everyone still looks shocked and frustrated when these teams beat them.
Cal should be scheduling the following only:
Big 10: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State
Big 12: Oklahoma, Texas
SEC: Florida, LSU, Alabama, Georgia
Independent: Notre Dame
Big East: None
Mid-Majors: historically bottom half of conference. Examples: UNLV, Utah State, San Jose State, North Texas, etc.
1-AA: historically not in FCS playoffs.
Why these teams and not others?
First, wins sell recruits. They are hard enough to come by in conference, and Cal is good for at least 2-3 conference losses a year. 9-3 or 10-2 sounds a lot better than 8-4. Recruits don't care that you didn't play anyone, as long as you win.
On the other hand, if they see you lose on national TV to anyone other than a marquis program, you highly risk losing that recruit.
Second, if Cal happens to finish second in conference one year, the only slim chance they have of going to a BCS bowl is to be 10-2. If you're second in conference, you've probably got two conference losses the way the parity is right now. You can't afford a third non-conference loss if the goal is a high BCS ranking.
Third, the hit from losing on national TV to Nevada or Maryland is far greater proportionately than the bump from beating them on national TV. No one is going to say Cal is "for real" if they win these games. But they will write them off in heartbeat if they lose like this.
Fourth, if you're going to go in with a higher risk of loss, let it be where you're the underdog, where you'll get good exposure, and where you'll actually get some mileage out of playing well even in defeat. This means teams like Alabama, Florida, Ohio State. Look how much mileage Tedford has gotten out of the 2004 SC game. Seriously, the credibility Tedford earned from that game still hasn't completely rubbed off six years later. And he lost.
Fifth, and finally, wins, even over Sally Ann teams, build confidence. Confidence is so important, and when you get some, you have to capitalize on it. What you want is for that confidence to be an asset, not a liability. If you're playing someone you don't know how to prepare for the next week, or are not familiar with, it can be dangerous to feel confident from wins over weak teams, because it may cause you to underestimate your next opponent. But if you're playing Oregon State next week, then you know your opponent, so you know how to keep your head in check. In that case, it's good to have some confidence.
Plus, a record is a record. And wins are always better than losses. It's always better from a confidence standpoint to be 3-0 against weak teams than 2-1. Ask any Cal player if they'd trade that loss for a win over Citadel right now, and they'd tell you they would.
The bottom line is this. Cal has gone national in recruiting. They've raised their profile the last 8 years. And for some reason, Cal only needs to blow people out and win some games, and they get a bump in rankings. If they want to cash in on this and keep raising their profile, and getting more elite recruits so they can get to that elusive Rose Bowl or BCS game, wetting themselves on national TV early in the season is not the way to do it.