Don't be surprised if ... California

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Third in a series of Pac-10 thoughts that might come from unusual angles.

Don't be surprised if ...

California doesn't need a first-rate passing game to be a top-10 team. And the reason is punting.

I have positively beaten into the ground a Rick Neuheisel quip from last year -- "Punting is winning" -- but the reason for that is the ultimate wisdom contained in the phrase's superficial ridiculousness.

Punting can be winning if you have a great punter. And a good defense.

Field position is so critical in competitive games, particularly in competitive games in which two teams force a lot of three-and-outs. And a lot of turnovers.

Cal will have a good defense next fall. Perhaps the best in the Pac-10. It's got eight starters back from a unit that, in 2008, ranked fourth in the nation in forced turnovers (34) and sixth in the nation in forced three-and-outs (48).

And it's got a great punter in sophomore Bryan Anger, the only freshman and Pac-10 player to be named a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award. He averaged 43.1 yards per boot and led the conference with 26 punts killed inside the 20. When he wasn't using a pitching wedge, he crushed 16 punts of more than 50 yards. And I'm not sure any punter in the nation can match his hang time.

Imagine a field with two teams not doing diddly on offense. One punter averages 38 yards; the other 45 yards. The field shortens fairly quickly for the team with the better punter, eh?

And then the opponent makes a mistake while backed up in its own territory.

The Bears would benefit greatly -- and could become dark-horse national title contenders -- with a passing offense that connects on 60 percent of its throws and averages 225-plus yards per game.

If a defense can't stack the box on Jahvid Best, honestly, it's doomed. He's going to go yard at some point and that's just the way it is.

But even against a stacked box due to a mediocre passing game -- and note that the Bears did have 25 touchdown passes last year, tied for second-most in the Pac-10 -- they can put up enough points to win nearly every game, if they dominate field position.

Which might Anger the rest of the Pac-10.