Football is back.
High school teams across the state begin practice Monday, the first leg of a marathon season that concludes with the CIF State championships at Sacramento State on Dec. 15-16.
And questions abound. Who are the top prospects? Will the Folsom Bulldogs open the preseason ranked No. 1 by The Bee, a spot they have held since the beginning of the 2012 campaign? That’s a run of 80 consecutive football weeks, the longest since Cordova led the nation in victories in the 1970s and was No. 1 from 1975-80.
If not Folsom, then what team? Oak Ridge? Jesuit? Inderkum?
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At the collegiate level, the Big Sky Conference Media Day festivities were held last week in Park City, Utah, where optimism was the optimum word – and not just because the NCAA ended two-a-day practice sessions as a way to keep athletes upright and healthy, a far cry from starting drills with salt tablets and a mandate of “no water.”
UC Davis and Sac State are struggling to stay above water. The programs were picked by coaches and media to finish 11th and 12th, respectively, in the 13-team scramble.
UCD went 3-8 last season in Ron Gould’s final season, and Sac State went 2-9 under Jody Sears, entering the final year of his four-year contract.
First-year Aggies coach Dan Hawkins said preseason talk is just that – chatter. The real talk resonates with helmets and pads.
“You still play it out on the field,” he said.
UCD and Sac State each had one player named to the preseason All-Big Sky Team: receiver Keelan Doss for the Aggies and defensive end Ben Sorensen for the Hornets. The teams will need more leaders in order to compete.
The Pacific-12 Conference’s Media Day is Wednesday and Thursday in Hollywood.
The conference’s top offensive player will be there – Jake Browning, the Washington quarterback by way of Folsom. The junior was sixth in the Heisman Trophy sweepstakes in 2016 after tossing a conference-record-tying 43 touchdowns despite laboring with a sore shoulder that required offseason surgery.
The top Pac-12 defender may well reside in Los Angeles, and he’ll be on hand in Hollywood. Cameron Smith of Granite Bay is a third-year starting linebacker for USC.
Smith and Browning could emerge is first-round picks next April, if they do not return for their senior seasons.
UCD and Sac State don’t generate the buzz as Pac-12 teams, but when these Causeway Classic rivals win, they draw crowds and local recruits look their way. But that’s the problem. Consistent success has eluded both programs of late.
UCD football started in 1915. It has produced 30 conference championships, including 20 in succession (1971-90) during the program’s heyday under coaches Jim Sochor, Bob Foster and Bob Biggs. The Aggies last won a conference title in 2009.
Since joining the Big Sky in 2012, UCD has gone 16-40, but the Aggies landed a home-run hire in Hawkins, a tireless and gregarious sort who played fullback for the school in the early 1980s. He relishes recruiting and likes to parade around Yolo County or Golden 1 Center in an old letterman jacket.
Sac State fielded its first football team in 1954. The Hornets have won four conference titles: in 1964 and ’66 under Ray Clemons, in 1986 under Bob Mattos, and in 1995 under John Volek, now back in the Hornets fold as an athletics adviser to Sac State president Robert S. Nelsen and new athletic director Mark Orr, who grew up in Sacramento, often sneaking into Hornets football games for a peek at the action. Now he supervises the action.
Only Mattos finished with a winning record at Sac State, going 84-73-2 from 1978-92. Sac State showed glimpses of promise under coach Marshall Sperbeck, including wins at Oregon State in 2011 and at Colorado in 2012, but he couldn’t maintain the momentum.
Sac State has gone 4-18 the last two seasons. Orr said football can and should achieve at the FCS level. It helps that Sac State returns all five of its starting offensive linemen.
“The heart of your football team starts up front, no matter where you are,” Sears said at Media Day. “That’s where your leadership comes from and where the mentality of your team is established. Those guys returning does not guarantee anything. Hopefully, they are a little bigger and stronger and the chemistry improves.”