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With the Urban Meyer Era fewer than 50 days aways from kicking off in Columbus, we at Buckeye Grove- with some help from our friends in the Rivals.com network- have decided to take an in-depth look at each of Ohio State's opponents for the 2012 season. Today, we'll be examining the Buckeyes' third opponent of the season: the California Golden Bears. You can see yesterday's preview of the UCF Knights by clicking here.
Since 2003, when Ohio State welcomed the North Carolina State Wolfpack to Columbus, each Buckeyes' season has been marked by at least one big-time out-of-conference opponent. This season, however, the closest thing to a big-time out of conference opponent for the Buckeyes will come on Sept. 15 when the Pac-12's California Golden Bears head to Columbus.
Despite enduring a 7-6 season in 2011, the Bears will bring a talented squad to Columbus, even if coach Jeff Tedford is not yet sure who will be taking snaps for Cal when it takes on the Buckeyes. Senior quarterback Zach Maynard will be returning for the Bears, although there are still some questions as to whether or not the 6-foot-2 signal caller will be eligible for Cal's third game of the season.
"He could miss as many as four games or as little as no games depending on certain interpretations of the NCAA rule. So we'll see what happens. Right now it's a pretty closely guarded secret, but they're hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," Ryan Gorcey of BearTerritory.net said. They're hoping Maynard comes back and will take that leap that he should make as a senior, but they're also preparing for the worst in that Allan Bridgford is the No. 2 right now and behind him is true freshman Zach Kline, the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2012 class. So they've got pretty good depth there, we'll see if it gets tested."
While question marks surround Cal's quarterback position, the Bears' running back stable appears to be in safe hands thanks to seniors Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson. Sofele rushed for 1,322 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2011, while Anderson added in 345 yards and eight scores.
Gorcey said that the Bears' running game will go a long way towards determining the success of its passing game, regardless of who's taking snaps for Cal.
"When at the end of last year when you saw Zach Maynard do so well, that was because the run game was very, very effective," Gorcey said. "When Cal does run power, and when they can run down somebody's throat as we saw in the last four games of the regular season, that's been their identity when they've been a good team. We're talking '04 and '06 when they won 10 games, the power of this team is running, and that's the power of the Jeff Tedford offense."
The Cal run game could prove to be a worthy test for an Ohio State linebacking corps that returns just one starter and starts two true sophomores.
Another test for Ohio State could come in the form of the matchup between the Buckeyes' inexperienced offensive line and the Bears' defensive line and linebackers. Despite returning just one starter to its front-seven, Gorcey expects a strong showing from Cal's defensive unit.
"The defensive line and the front seven- at least in the past few years- have always been a really big strength. Even though they're loaded with inexperience, there's a lot of depth there and there's a lot of young depth," Gorcey said. "The Cal defense and (defensive coordinator) Clancy Pendergast and (linebackers coach) Kenwick Thompson are really having these guys run downhill and they're going to be very, very disruptive."
Although Gorcey isn't counting on the Bears knocking off the Buckeyes on Sept. 15, he did say that the combination of a successful Cal running game and an aggressive defensive approach could spell trouble for a young Ohio State team that's still adjusting to coach Urban Meyer's system.
"If the Cal offense does not turn the ball over, if Isi Sofele does not put the ball on the ground, then the defense won't have their backs up against the wall, and when they don't have their backs up against the wall, they can really turn it on downhill," Gorcey said. "Especially for a team that has not had a whole lot of experience with this offensive system, I think that could turn out to be a very interesting matchup."
Of course that's easier said than done, especially for a Bears team that ranked 67th in the country in turnover margin in 2011. When you couple that with the uncertainty that the Cal program has faced in the last few years, it's easy to see why Gorcey is skeptical of Cal's chances against both the Buckeyes and Southern California, who the Bears will face on Sept. 22.
"It's a huge, huge, huge if; but if Cal can take one of those two games, and again, that is a mammoth, ridiculously huge if, then that maybe changes the season a little bit," Gorcey said. "The past five years, the program has either been moving backwards or standing still and that's not good. Cal needs a big win, a signature win early, and Jeff Tedford really needs a signature win early to show that he's not stagnating."
The Buckeyes and Bears 12 p.m. kickoff on Sept. 15 will be televised live on the ABC.
You can follow Ryan Gorcey on Twitter @RGBearTerritory.
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