There are no elevated magazine rankings, no conference contention expectations and no Heisman Trophy candidates as Cal opens training camp for the 2010 season today.
The conventional wisdom is that's a good thing for the Bears, who have demonstrated in recent years a stunning ability to crumble under the weight of great expectations.
But the Bears themselves aren't taking that bait. For one, Cal isn't exactly in concurrence with the so-called experts picking them to finish seventh in the Pac-10 and nowhere near the national rankings. And the Bears are also more concerned about things other than dealing with decreased expectations -- most notably finding a consistent passing game, rebuilding the secondary and finding a few linebackers to play alongside All-America candidate Mike Mohamed.
"We're hungry. We want to prove people wrong," said Mohamed, an All-Pac-10 first-team selection last season who led the conference with 112 tackles. "But at the same time, just because we're picked to finish seventh doesn't mean we have to. We've kind of been on the opposite side of all this in years past and fell flat on our face, basically. We know the expectations don't really matter. We just have to go out and play ball, and prove people wrong one week at a time."
One of the reasons pundits don't expect much of Cal this season probably is because they are gun-shy. Cal began two of the past three seasons ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press preseason poll and picked to finish second in the Pac-10. Each time, the Bears ended up with mediocre seasons and far removed from the national radar.
Cal has some pieces in place as camp opens. Fifth-year senior Kevin Riley is back for his third season as a starter, and talented tailback Shane Vereen showed last year what could come this year after replacing injured first-round NFL draft pick Jahvid Best (Detroit Lions). Four starters return on the offensive line.
Mohamed is one of the conference's top defensive players, explosive defensive end Cameron Jordan is back for his third season as a starter, and Sean Cattouse opened some eyes at safety last season.
Still, the Bears open camp with more holes than in any season in recent memory. Marvin Jones is the only returning wide receiver who has demonstrated any measure of consistency. Cal will have to replace both starting outside linebackers, and there are no slam-dunk candidates waiting in the wings. And the Bears have huge question marks at both cornerback spots, one of which was vacated by All-Pac-10 first-team pick Syd'Quan Thompson, who was drafted by the Denver Broncos.
"Whenever you decrease expectations, of course you're going to do better than what's expected because the expectations were not that high," said Vereen, Cal's leading rusher last season with 952 yards. "What's important is for our team to have its own expectations, its own goals -- raise the bar for ourselves."