COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (Ticker) -- No. 14 California, which enters the 2004 season with great expectations and its highest preseason ranking in 50 years, hit the road to take on Air Force in the season opener for both teams Saturday.
Not since the 1954 team entered the season ranked 12th in the AP poll has a Golden Bears squad been so highly acclaimed entering a season. However, the Falcons know how to handle ranked Cal teams.
Air Force won the last meeting, 23-21, in Berkeley during the 2002 season. Cal entered that game ranked 23rd and was coming off a 46-22 victory over then-No. 15 Michigan State.
In 2003, coach Jeff Tedford's squad posted an 8-6 record and was the only school to beat national co-champion USC. The Bears capped the season with a 52-49 victory over Virginia Tech in Insight Bowl.
The Golden Bears are led by junior quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 2,903 yards and 19 touchdowns against just five interceptions in 2003. His favorite target is senior wideout Geoff McArthur, who had 85 catches, 10 for scores.
Nine starters return on defense, including all three linebackers. Also back in the fold is All-Pac-10 strong safety Donnie McCleskey, who had 102 tackles last year.
Air Force went 7-5 in 2003 for coach Fisher DeBerry, who is entering his 21st season with the Falcons and is the winningest coach in service academy history (156-88-1).
The quarterback is pivotal in Air Force's option attack, and DeBerry must find a replacement for the departed Chance Harridge. His selection was Shaun Carney, who is the first freshman in school history named starter to begin the season and the first to to start any game since Dee Dowis in 1986.
Last season's entire offensive line graduated, which will make things difficult for Carney and a group of wingbacks that includes Darnell Stephens. After winning the national rushing title in 2002, the Falcons slipped to fourth last season.
Only three starters return on defense, but one is active middle linebacker John Rudzinski.
Air Force is 17-3 in season openers under DeBerry, including an 11-1 mark against non-conference foes.