EVANSTON, Ill. -- After nine months of reinvention in the wake of the worst defensive season in Cal football history, the Golden Bears get to put it to the test Saturday at Northwestern.
Here's what has changed on defense since a gruesome 63-13 loss to Stanford in the Big Game: A new coordinator, two new position coaches, the return of key players who missed last season with injuries, and the arrival of newcomers recruited to fill holes and add depth.
Will the upgrades allow the Bears to be competitive against a schedule that ESPN ranks as the third-toughest in the nation?
"I like what I see," coach Sonny Dykes said. "I have a lot of confidence in those guys, probably a lot more than I should based on what I saw last year."
The Bears' 1-11 season was defined by a defense that allowed 45.9 points per game last season -- second-worst in the country and a school record by a significant margin.
Dating back to the end of the 2012 season, Cal has failed to hold an opponent under 30 points for 14 consecutive games. In 11 of those games, the other team scored 40 or more.
Art Kaufman, whose defense at Cincinnati last year allowed just 21.0 points per game, was hired to take over as coordinator. He tweaked the Bears' 4-3 scheme and rebuilt with a personnel infusion.
Three players considered possibly this team's best on defense -- end Brennan Scarlett (hand), tackle Mustafa Jalil (knee) and safety Stefan McClure (knee) played in a combined five games last season.
Cal also brought in six junior college transfers to stiffen its defense.
"Let's go find out where we are," Kaufman said. "Let's play the game and see how fast we're going to play, what mistakes we're going to make, how we tackle. We've done a lot of work, and it's time to go play."
Sophomore Michael Barton, who will start at middle linebacker but also play some on the outside, said this defense is "night and day" better than last season.
"Guys are focused, guys are tuned in, we know what we're doing, we're confident, we're fast, we're strong," Barton said.
Northwestern beat the Bears 44-30 in Berkeley last year but struggled to a 1-7 record in Big Ten play. The Wildcats also expect to make a leap forward this fall.
Former coach Rick Neuheisel, now a studio analyst with the Pac-12 Networks, said no team in the country has a more important opener than the Bears.
"It's a huge game. Northwestern is still considered a big-time opponent. If Cal can go in there and compete -- they don't necessarily have to win -- and show there has been an improvement, I think people will breathe a little bit of a sigh of relief," he said.
The NU offense operates behind a line featuring players with 100 combined starts. Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian passed for 276 yards and a touchdown against the Bears last season, and senior running back Treyvon Green ran for 129 yards and two TDs.
NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said prepping for a Cal defense with so much that's new is a little tricky. "We won't know until halftime how they're attacking us," he said. "They've definitely got the advantage there."
The Wildcats figure to have watched Cincinnati tapes to learn Kaufman's tendencies and Cal tapes to study personnel.
"Either way," Scarlett said, "they're not going to be ready for what's coming out of the locker room."
Cal at Northwestern,
12:30 p.m. ABC
BACK OF THE PAC
A look at how Cal's 2013 defense stacked up in the Pac-12 Conference:
Stat (per gm) Pac-12 rank
Points allowed: 45.9 12th
Yards allowed: 529.6 12th
Rushing yards: 188.6 10th
Passing yards: 341.0 12th