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UCLA preview

Well, it comes down to this: One game for one shot at bowl eligibility.  At this point, all of the missed opportunities (Arizona, USC, Colorado, Stanford and heck even Oregon (the Bears were only down by 7 early in the 4th quarter)), stick out like sore thumbs.  If just *one* of those went the Bear’s way, we’d already be looking forward to a bowl game, looking at today’s game as a can’t lose opportunity to improve our bowl situation.

Instead, the Bears have to go on the road to a place that has been the death of Cal fan’s dreams for generations.  From 1973 to 1989, the Bears did not win at all, much less in Pasadena.  Then their were the disasters in 2005, 2007 and 2011, all games in which the Bears were favored, but somehow laid an egg in Pasadena.  And don’t forget the 20th ranked Bears in 2015 (hard to remember that, huh?) lost in Pasadena as well.  Point being, the Rose Bowl has not been kind to the Bears.  Frankly, this is probably the opponent where home-field advantage has meant the most (UCLA fans have their long list of “I can’t believe we lost that one” games in Berkeley as well).  Add to this that UCLA is in the same boat: one win away from bowl eligibility in their final regular season game.  And while we’re piling on, the Bears have *STUNK* on the road this year (most notably Oregon and Colorado, but Washington wasn’t exactly stellar either).  Add it all up and it makes me very nervous about this game.

On paper it seems like these teams are similarly matched.  UCLA lost to Arizona and Stanford worse than the Bears, although not meaningfully so.  They lost to USC about the same.  They beat Oregon, but without Herbert at QB, so it’s hard to compare.  They beat Colorado, but did it at home.  They got throttled by Washington just like Cal did.  Put together, these results suggest fairly equal playing results.  Their strength is their passing game and Rosen is considered a pretty good QB.  But there’s reason to believe he can be confused the way Cal’s defense can do , particularly when the running game is easy enough to contain that the defense can be more aggressive in it’s swapping schemes.  So, while it’s not a slam dunk, I don’t think in a neutral field game versus UCLA, it would be unreasonable to think Cal would win.

Sadly, all other things being equal, I don’t think I could make the same argument with the game in Pasadena.

But then comes the *HUGE*(!?!) wildcard that UCLA just fired their head coach, Jim Mora, and are playing with an interim head coach (the offensive coordinator).

Now, many would think this to be a good thing, but history doesn’t back that theory.  Lots of teams have done better in this situation.  Often it is a burden lifted, particularly when the head coach wasn’t well liked.  Sometimes players feel like their jobs are on the line and they want to show up well on film in the last game, when the new staff arrives.  But on the other side, for well liked coaches there is the depression factor.  There’s the chaos on the sideline.  There’s the distraction factor of wondering what is to come.

So, which is it?  I’m going to go with disappointing distraction.  All of the various UCLA webpages are full of articles about whether Chip Kelly is headed to Brentwood (my prediction: No stinking way) and other coaching change related headlines.  You’d have to think that on a short week (with Thanksgiving in the middle) with all the reporters full of questions about Mora’s dismissal and his possible replacements are taking a notable toll on the teams preparation and focus right now.

And so I’m going to face the Rose Bowl demon straight in the eye and say “Not this year!”  I think Wilcox has learned from the troubles the Bears have had in previous road games and will have the team ready to play tonight.  He’ll have clearly put in their heads what’s at stake: Either go home and empty out your locker or get to play 4 more weeks of football.  I also think he’s going to have a good game plan to confuse Rosen (who won’t have been spending a lot of time preparing).

Bears win a cathartic one: 41-24

Big Game Preview

Stanford has been a bit of a baffling team this season.  They looked *very* beatable early in the season when they lost to San Diego State.  But they looked like the best team in the conference when they beat Washington last week.  Their other losses are a beatdown by USC in the 2nd week of the season and a nailbiter loss to WSU two weeks ago.  The other surprising game was a nailbiter victory over Oregon State 3 weeks ago.

But one piece of data dramatically clarifies their more recent struggles: Star RB Bryce Love was injured half way through the Oregon game.  He missed the following game versus Oregon State game and it’s reasonable to project that he wasn’t back to 100% for the WSU game.  Indeed he had his lowest number of carries since the loss to San Diego State and by far his lowest number of yards (69 vs. a previous pre-injury low of 152).

So my feeling is the narrative for Stanford be that they’ve improved dramatically over the course of the season, in part realizing how much they should build their offense around Love, but then struggled without him at 100%.  And if that’s accurate, Cal is in real trouble with Love back at full strength.

Cal’s only hope is to sell out to stopping Love and hope that the secondary can sufficiently stifle young QB K.J. Costello (and hopefully confuse into some interceptions) who has taken over for the mediocre veteran QB Chryst.  Costello has not really been an improvement throwing no touchdowns and 1 interception while completing just over 50% of his passes in his last two games as starter.  So if the Bears can actually stop Love while not leaving receivers dramatically open, they’ll have a shot of slowing Stanford to a degree to make the game competitive.

But that is not the Bears only problem.  Stanford continues to win with defense.  Indeed, the most points the team has given up outside of a head scratcher versus UCLA, is 24 points.  Cal is going to have to focus on a quick passing game, as it is hard to believe the offensive line is going to hold up to the Stanford rush.  It’s also going to have to find balance with the running game.  Cal will have to maximize their possessions, because this will likely be a game with fewer possessions than most (particularly those against spread/quick snap teams).

Is it possible that Cal wins?  Yes, it is.  In fact, far stranger things have happened in Big Game history.  I could see Cal holding Stanford to 16 points (3 FG’s and a touchdown) if they really are able to contain Love.  I could also see Cal putting up 24 points on Stanford if everything is clicking, perhaps even as high as 31 if a few turnovers help them.  But at the end of the day, that’s just not what I expect to happen.

Cal loses in frustrating form: 13-31

End of the season games setting up nicely

Cal is headed into its bye week, and while it probably would have been better overall for the bye to come a couple/few weeks ago to give Cal a better shot at Arizona and Colorado, being well rested before the Big Game will be nice.

Let’s take a quick look at how the last two games are looking, schedule wise:

Stanford has two tough games with Cal in the middle.  They’ve got UW, then Cal, then Notre Dame (all at home).  Beating UW will be tough for Stanford.  If they win, they could be exhausted, over confident or looking forward to their chance to beat #3 Notre Dame (and massively improve their ranking).  If they lose to UW, they’ll 6-4 and looking at another disappointing season.  Plus, as we all know, Stanford is always a bit thrown off by how many Cal fans are in their home stadium.

Plus, this team is vulnerable.  The only victory on their win list that makes it look unlikely that Cal could beat them is their beat down of Oregon.  But it’s worth noting that Oregon has been horrible ever since Cal knocked out their 1st and 2nd string QBs.  Other than that, Cal beat OSU better than Stanford did, lost closer to USC than Stanford did, and schlacked WSU whereas Stanford lost to them.  While a subjective analysis suggests Stanford is the better team, nevertheless, Cal can compete with them.  If Stanford doesn’t come with their best game, Cal can easily beat them.

Then there’s UCLA…

UCLA is having yet another disappointing season and things aren’t looking to get any better.  The odds makers would suggest that UCLA will lose its next two games and come into the Cal game 4-7 and out of bowl game contention.  That’s a great place to catch a team at the end of the season, after Thanksgiving.  While going to the Rose Bowl always worries me (the list of Cal flops down there is long and distinguished), this might be one of the best times to catch UCLA in quite a while.

While two games on the road against talented opponents should never be looked at in too rosy a light, I can’t imagine too many scenarios that setup better than these do.

Oregon State Preview

We’ve reached the part of the season where “the loops” start to appear.  Cal has a head-scratcher with WSU and Colorado (in chronological order):

  1. Cal destroyed WSU 37-3
  2. WSU destroyed Colorado 28-0
  3. Colorado handled Cal 44-28

Obviously there is at least one game in there that one or both of the teams didn’t perform as expected (either bad or good).  I think the answer to understanding where Cal sits is to accurately determining what those unexpected performances are.  Here’s my stab at it:

  • WSU had a bad game against Cal (but would have lost anyway)
  • Cal had a great game against WSU (but would have won anyway)
  • Colorado had a bad game against WSU (but would have lost anyway)
  • Cal had a bad game against Colorado (outcome unclear, particularly on a neutral field)

In other words, these three teams are relatively equally matched if they all brought a strong performance and in my opinion the ordering is Cal over WSU over Colorado (but it’s all very close).

I know that is a pretty rosy picture, but now that Arizona beat WSU by a stronger margin than its victory over Cal (as well as beating Colorado), it’s showing that Arizona wasn’t one of the two easy games on Cal’s schedule like we thought it was.  Thus everything on Cal’s schedule makes sense if Colorado is the outlier.  And it makes particular sense when you look at last week’s preview where I talked about the Colorado X-Factor.

That’s just a really, really, REALLY tough place to play, particularly for a young team.

And then add this, with the above assumptions, the games where one would say Cal didn’t quite measure up to their capabilities, they’re *ALL* road games.  Oregon might have been a loss anyway, but Cal should have played them closer.  Washington would *definitely* have been a loss anyway, but Cal could have kept it closer.  And then there’s Colorado that had us nashing our teeth.

So, all of that is a long way of saying that I think Cal bounces back today against a more dangerous than we think Oregon State team.

Oregon State lost a close one to Colorado at home as well as a close one against Stanford at home.  This is a team that is playing above their potential with nothing to lose since their head coach quit mid-season.  If Cal had to make the trip to Corvallis, I’d be pretty worried right now.  Not that Cal couldn’t win that game on the road.  It just would be very dangerous.

As it is, I think Oregon State is in for a surprise.  They’re going to face a Cal team that is tired of losing games it could win and will take out their frustrations on Oregon State at home on Senior Day.

Cal wins 38-20.

 

Colorado preview

I always hate predicting games against Colorado when the games are in Boulder.  The elevation has proven time and time again to be an X-Factor.  It really stresses the conditioning of the team and both the passing and kicking game are affected by the thinner air.  Nevertheless, I will plod on, hoping the X-Factor doesn’t become too prevalent.

Cal has 3 common opponents with CU at this point:  Both teams were dominated by UW (Cal on the road, CU at home).  Both lost close one’s to Arizona at home (more on this later).  And finally, Cal kicked the crud out of WSU at home and WSU throttled CU at home.  Obviously the WSU result is the lone differentiator, and it is *hugely* different, suggesting Cal is the better team.  But frankly, I think it is a mistake to put too much stock in the WSU game.  At the end of the season, I think it will be clear that it is the outlier in both Cal’s results and WSU’s results.

One could look at the CU vs. Arizona game and think it shows that the X-Factor won’t be that big of a deal.  If Arizona was able to have a similar result despite having to go into the altitude, perhaps it shows that CU isn’t as good in a neutral situation.  Unfortunately there are three caveats:

  1. Tate came in mid-1st quarter and was a complete unknown.  That was a huge disadvantage CU had that Cal didn’t.
  2. Arizona’s offensive game plan is heavily run-biased, which is far less affected by the elevation than the passing game.
  3. Most people don’t know this, but outside of the mountain schools (Utah and Colorado), Arizona and WSU are tied (effectively) for the next highest elevation at ~2300 feet.  All the rest of us are much lower.  I think Arizona has a bit of an advantage (as does WSU) over the other schools when going into the mountains.

All of the above says to me that Cal is either a slightly better team or they are pretty even, with the X-Factor looming as something that might completely overwhelm that analysis.

But I’m going to stick with my pre-season instincts and call this the “upset” game (in quotes because it is no longer an upset).  Colorado has been way over appreciated and unlike Cal is going to be very disappointed with their current situation of 1-4 in conference.  This is a team that barely beat Oregon State and that’s their only conference win.  All of their non-conference games were against real powder puffs (Colorado State, Texas State and University of Northern Colorado).  They have yet to beat a quality team (although they’ve come close). The talent level on this team is mediocre with their best position being WR.  They are a balanced team, which is definitely to their favor, but their statistics are mediocre across the board and are so despite a fairly weak schedule to date.

Cal’s defense will confuse and stifle their offense and get a couple of important interceptions.  The Cal offense will have good drives and bad ones, unable to sustain the rhythm that’s we’d like to see.  There will be at least one disappointing throw from Bowers that results in an interception.  But at the end of the day, the stifling Cal defense will prove to be the difference.

Bears win 23-17.

Arizona Preview

Watch out!  We’ve all thought Arizona was going to be one of Cal’s easier games, but they’ve been quietly (and more recently, not so quietly) putting together a much better season than expected.  They’re sitting at 4-2 and tied for 2nd in the south division at 2-1 in conference.  Their big surprise comes from quarterback Khalil Tate, who took over 2 games ago when starter Brandon Dawkins went down on the 1st drive of the game.  But Tate so thorough turned the team around that a 5 minute search couldn’t even turn up whether Dawkins is healthy enough to play versus Cal.  Tate is the starter now and is a “dual threat” QB.

That said, there are a bunch of caveats.  The first is the softness of Arizona’s schedule.  A non-conference slate that “features” Houston, UTEP and N. Arizona… oh, and they lost to Houston (admittedly with Dawkins at the helm).  Their signature win was over a suspect (in my opinion) UCLA squad.  They lost to Utah (again, the Dawkins caveat) who lost to USC in similar fashion to Cal (a close one).  Utah has gotten some ranking hype, but the reality is they haven’t beat anyone of note either.  Utah’s signature win is without a doubt over Arizona (and so the comparison loops go).  Simply stated, their highest ranked opponent Utah, would be the 4th toughest game on Cal’s slate thus far and the non-conference comparison is a joke (obviously in favor of Cal).

Next up, the emergence of game film… there’s a long history of a backup QB coming in and looking awesome for a couple games, but then tailing of dramatically.  Why?  Because they’re unexpected and there’s very little game film on them for a couple weeks.  Frankly, Cal benefited from that all the way up through the Ole Miss game as the opponents didn’t have much to look at for Cal.  It’s no surprise Cal didn’t look quite as brilliant starting with the USC game (better opponents obviously played a part as well).  But the point is, Tate was a *COMPLETE* unknown against Colorado and then there was only one game’s worth of film for UCLA, who didn’t know for sure whether Dawkins or Tate would be starting.  Thus UCLA had to prepare for both and do so for Tate with limited film to work with.  Cal is not going to have that problem.  Dawkins is out and Tate is the known starter with nearly two full games of film to look at.

Then there’s the “dual threat” QB thing.  He threw only 13 times against Colorado (but admittedly did very well with 12 completions) and another 13 versus UCLA (admittedly with another respectable 9 completions).  Need I remind my readers that Cal just befuddled and confused one of the best passers in the nation last week?  Arizona has two choices: 1. Continue to heavily bias the play-calling toward the run game or 2. Make the *VERY* risky decision to let a guy with less than 2 games experience try to read Cal’s defense.  Frankly, I hope they pick #2.  I’m pretty confident that dual threat means that he can pass the ball when the defense is forced into difficult coverage scenarios as they attempt to slow down his run game.  If he ever had to be a pocket passer, all bets are off.

So this game will come down to whether Cal can shut down Tate’s running game without having to give up reasonable pass coverage.  In that regard, there’s bad news, Downs is out for the season (the injuries are starting to pile up).  Nevertheless, Cal did pretty well without him in the 2nd half last week.  Downs is good, but there is more depth on the Cal defense than we think.  Cal has been doing a lot of substituting to keep the defense fresh throughout the season.  One of the upsides of that philosophy is that your 2nd and 3rd string guys get a fair amount of playing time before they end up first string guys due to injury.

Thus there are two scenarios I envision.  #1, the Cal defense struggles to contain Tate’s running game.  Everything else opens up from there and Arizona puts up enough points to win (I’ll leave it as an open question whether Cal can score a fair amount of points, but in this scenario, how ever many points Cal can score, it’s not enough as Tate runs all over the Bears).  #2, Cal shuts down Tate’s run game and Arizona is forced to the passing game.  Things will go haywire for Arizona from there and Cal will win BIG, similar to the WSU game.  Frankly, I think it’s a 60%/40% chance on which one will play out as there have been times I’ve been a little worried about the Cal run defense and with Downs out, that may be more trouble against a more formidable run offense than WSU.  I expect Cal to play a lot of zone defense and will allow the safeties to play pretty aggressively to come up and stop the run.

All things considered, I’ll stick with the 60% scenario.  Cal wins big: 38-13.

WSU preview

Another quick one this week…

The Bears and Wougs have two common opponents, USC and Oregon.  Both played USC at home and both played a close game into the 4th quarter.  At that point the Bears fell apart and WSU sealed the deal.  Both played Oregon at Oregon and while Cal got destroyed, WSU cruised to victory.  However, there’s a *HUGE* caveat in that.  The Bears mostly lost that game to the starting QB.  Once he went down, the game actually went in the Bears favor until late in the game.  The starting QB didn’t make it back for the WSU game and so WSU played a pretty compromised team compared to the one that put up a bunch of points on Cal in the 1st half.

Nevertheless, the Wougs have the benefit of the doubt and out performed Cal in both games.  Additionally, while WSU seems to be getting stronger every week, Cals’ offense has regressed and its defense, while holding OK, seems to have a few issues that offensive coordinators are learning to exploit.

So, while I think it is possible, if the ball bounces the right way and the Cal offense gets back on track, for the Bears to win tonight, I don’t think it happens.  The offense is too likely to stall.

Bears 17, Wougs 38

Quick UW game preview

Wanted to make sure I had a prediction on record.

I think the Bears do better tonight than last week, but just don’t have the horses to keep up, particularly in Seattle.  However, I think we’ll be heartened by the effort and likely feel the Bears will likely be competitive in all their remaining games (things get much easier from here).

Bears lose 24-38

Oregon preview

We’re finally starting to get to the point in the season where there are some (although not a lot) of meaningful results to look at.

A lot of people were high on Oregon after they beat Nebraska.  But then Nebraska lost to Northern Illinois the following week.  Then Oregon lost to Arizona State, who is now 2-2, confirming that Oregon is not an elite team.

But before we get too excited, Cal’s opponents are losing their luster every week.  North Carolina is 1-3, losing to Duke and Louisville.  Ole Miss had a bye last week, but has yet to beat a Power 5 teams.  And USC lost to WSU last night (although WSU is better than history would suggest IMHO).

The overall point of the above is that we’ve got two flawed teams coming together tonight.  From that perspective, either team could pull out the win with a good effort.  Who’s hungrier?  That might be the key question.  And to answer it, I’d suggest that both teams are VERY hungry.  Both teams have new coaches and both teams are looking to put the past behind them.  Both just came off disappointing losses where the game was very much in reach in the 4th quarter.

I think this game is going to come down to defense, although in asymmetrical ways.  Oregon hasn’t been held to less than 35 all season.  Cal will have a formidable task in front of them.  But who can think after watching the last few games that the Cal defense isn’t up to the challenge?  They’ve exceeded every expectation and I have to believe that they will confuse Oregon just like they have everyone else.

Oregon’s defense is supposedly improved, but they’ve given up at least 35 to all of the Power 5 teams they’ve played.  I don’t know that Cal’s offense is good enough to put up 35, particularly on the road in one of the loudest stadiums in the country, but one has to think they’ll find at least moderate success.

And so I’m going to go against the Old Blue in me that wants to call this one a loss, thinking about all the times Cal has gone to Eugene and lost a winnable game; the Old Blue that just can’t believe this defense can keep it up; the Old Blue who fears the offense will fall to pieces in Autzen stadium.  Nope!  I’m locking the Old Blue in the basement for this one.  The Cal offense will find its rhythm.  The run game will work enough to keep drives alive and keep the Oregon offense off the field.  And the defense will frustrate and confuse the Oregon offense.

Bears win: 31-23

USC prediction post

The problem with predictions after a few games is you don’t really know how good the teams both you and your opponent played.  North Carolina is 1-2 having lost a not very close affair to Louisville before blowing out a FCS team.  Not the most impressive resume.  Ole Miss beat two pathetic teams before playing us, what does that mean?  As for USC, they’ve got a dominating win over Stanford under their belt (but the trees lost to SDSU as well) and a tight win over a supposedly mediocre Texas team, plus Western Michigan.

One can go in all sorts of circular logic loops with that data.  Out of all of them, I only have one thought I feel reasonably confident about:  Texas and Ole Miss would probably play a reasonably close game.  Thus, I think that the Bears are likely to at least be capable of beating USC.  But at the same time, I think Texas played up to USC as part of those two team’s mythical battle from the BCS title game over a decade ago.  So my gut says that USC would have beat them more soundly on average.

Here’s what it will come down to on Saturday… the trenches.  Can Cal’s young offensive line open enough holes and protect Bowers enough to score some points.  I think the Cal defense is maturing rapidly enough to keep USC in check.  But USC will score *some* points.  What I fear is that the Bears won’t be able to score many.

So, despite calling for a bunch of losses and having been wrong, I still think this massively improved team isn’t quite good enough to get it done.  But, compared to my pre-season prediction, I think it’s going to be a lot tighter.  Bears lose an offensively frustrating game that through late in the 3rd quarter the feeling is “if the Bears could just get some offense going”.

Bears lose: 13-23

Ole Miss Preview

How does one judge a team that has only played South Alabama and Tenn-Martin?  How does one judge a team that has an interim coach and self-imposed sanctions?  It’s a really difficult task.

Thus I’m going to end up making a lot of assumptions that I’d rather not make, particularly based on last year.  Ole Miss was a middle of the conference SEC team last year.  But even in the SEC, middle of the pack means big lines and relatively good speed.  Their QB, Shea Patterson is touted as being pretty good, having destroyed his 1st two opponents.  However, it is worth noting that his stats last year were not all that impressive,.  But for the 1st two games of the season about all they did is pass the ball, which is strange considering the competition (most schools stick to a conservative run game when playing weaker opponents) and shows they have a lot of confidence in Patterson.

As for the Ole Miss defense, they are a lot like Cal: A work in progress but with reasons to fear them.  From where I sit, I think this defense will be vulnerable if the Bears can hold their own on the line of scrimmage.  If Cal can find a respectable run game, that will open up the passing game and slow down the Ole Miss pass rush.  However, what we saw with Weber State gives me great pause in that department.  The offensive line that looked so good against North Carolina was exposed to have lots of gaps.

So as much as I won’t be shocked to see the Bears pull out a win, my prediction is going to have to be a loss because of two things:

  1. The youth of the Cal secondary against a talented QB.
  2. The Cal offensive line struggling against a big SEC-sized defensive line.

I expect the game to feel like the Bears could win if they could just get some consistency on offense, and every time it looks like the Bears are getting close, they’ll give up a big pass play that opens it back up for the Rebels.

Bears lose a frustrating, missed opportunity game: 24-35

2017 prediction post

As this post will make clear, I’m on the pessimistic side of the Cal fan-base this year.  I’m actually somewhat optimistic about the long-term with Wilcox at the helm and with the current state of the facilities.  But the reality for 2017 is that the talent cupboard was too bare and the new system Wilcox is putting in won’t be ready for prime time this year.   Here’s a game by game preview:

Cal at North Carolina: After having caught Texas at exactly the right time in its history the last couple years, it unfortunately is time for our comeuppance.  North Carolina is on the stronger side of their range right now and the Bears are on the weaker side.  I expect this to be a lower scoring affair than we’re used to, but the Bears offense will have trouble being productive.  Bears lose: 10- 24.

Cal vs. Weber State: If there’s one thing I have a lot of confidence in Wilcox in, it is his ability to win a game when he has the talent advantage.  In this way, he shares a lot in common with Tedford (who knew how to grind out a win whenever he had the advantage).  It will be interesting to see how much the offense can produce and how well the defense is gelling against a clearly inferior opponent.  My feeling is we’ll see spurts of it, but there will be portions of the game that are worrisome for there season-long implications.  Bears win easily: 38-13.

Cal vs. Ole Miss: This might be the toughest game of the season to predict.  Will the Rebels play up to their talent level or will their coaching/sanction chaos hamstring them?  Will they come to Berkeley expecting an easy win?  Perhaps if I wasn’t closer to an Old Blue than I’d like to admit, I’d be more optimistic.  Bears lose 23-42 (but it’s closer than that in the 4th quarter)

Cal vs. USC: When’s the last time Cal beat USC?  When the last time it was even close?  What makes you one think this is the year that changes?  Bears get dominated: 10-42.

Cal at Oregon: I’m of the belief that Oregon is on the rise.  However, Wilcox knows Eugene and will have Bears ready to play.  But the Bears best won’t be enough.  A single-score lead in the 2nd quarter is as close as the Bears will get: 20-31

Cal at Washington: I’m one who thinks Washington will take a little bit of a step back this year.  If the game was in Berkeley, I would at least toy with the idea of an upset.  But not in Husky stadium, which is even more intimidating in its new configuration. 23-35.

Cal vs. WSU: Here’s where the coaching staff will earn their salary.  After a  *very* tough start to the season, the Bears will be 1-5 with a number of losses they’d rather forget.  How much can Wilcox and Co. keep the optimism up with the players going into a much softer half of the season.  Sadly, WSU just keeps getting better and in my opinion will be the surprise team in the Pac-12 North.  While I’ll put this one on my potential upset list, I think the Bears still lose.  Their lone hope is the defense has matured a *LOT* through the first half of the season.  31-38.

Cal vs. Arizona: There’s only one team that got fewer points in the Pac-12 media poll than Cal and the Bears get to play them at home.  Some good scheduling karma!  (It’s about time.)  The Bears will look good in this one and will let out a lot of frustration on Arizona.  Win #2 comes in late October: 38-27.

Cal at Colorado: Colorado is the most over-rated team in the conference.  They got decimated by graduations last year AND got lucky the way the schedule fell.  Actually, technically, since decimated is only 10%, they got quadruple decimated.  But, this will still be an upset, particularly on the road at altitude.  Nevertheless, something in me says this is the game the Bears win that no one expects.  It will be a low scoring affair where the defense wins the day.  17-13.

Cal vs. Oregon State: The optimist would say that Cal has a good shot at this one.  But I think OSU is improving every year and will start to be firing on most of their cylinders by this point in the season.  It will be competitive, but mistakes will cost the Bears: 27-31

Big Game: The horrible streak continues but there will be signs that parity is closer to being restored than we fear: 17-24

Cal at UCLA:  At this point the Bears will just be playing for pride.  And to make matters worse, UCLA may be playing to get to 7-5 and ensure themselves a respectable bowl spot.  This is another one that at a different time and different place (Berkeley) the Bears would have more of a shot at it.  I tell you what, if Wilcox takes the team down there and pulls off the upset, you’ll never hear the end from me of how I’m on the Wilcox bandwagon.  As much as I’d like that to be true, I think the Bears peter out on this one: 17-35.

In summary, the Bears don’t get much schedule help and are in a tough spot talent wise.  If there’s some good news hiding in the schedule it is that most of the winnable games are later in the season after the team has had some time to gel.  If they over-perform my expectations, particularly if they can pull off a win against the Rebels, this team could go bowling and even reach 7-5 with wins over WSU, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon State and one of UCLA or Stanford.  That’s the high water mark in my opinion.

Big Game preview

A month ago, I was pretty optimistic about the Big Game.  Stanford was struggling, had recently changed QB’s and the rushing game wasn’t working.  Also, the defense was looking softer than they had looked in a LOOONG time.  Oh what a difference a month makes!  Stanford has started to find their rhythm offensively (to their standards) and their defense has tightened up significantly.  Don’t get me wrong, this is still not the power-house Stanford of a few years ago, but they’re a lot more solid than they were a month ago.

If Cal was entering the game as the same team as last year, I’d have a lot of hope.  Even with Stanford improved, they’re still more vulnerable than usual.  But the problem is that Cal is on the ropes right now in just about every phase of the game.  The offense is sputtering, having failed to get to 30 points in any of their last 3 games.  The rushing game, that was a meaningful threat and kept defenses honest has mysteriously disappeared.  The deep passing game that both helped the Bears put up lots of points and ensured there was plenty of room for short and medium range passing is practically non-existent.  And Webb hasn’t looked like himself, particularly in the mid-range stuff, since the Oregon State game.

And that’s the better of the two units!

The defense is an absolute mess.  Any team that can competently pass the ball is going to destroy the Bear’s defense.  There’s just no other way to say it.  At their best point of the season they were acceptably mediocre.  But between offenses adjusting to their weaknesses and a rash of injuries that has left them decimated, they’re officially horrible.  The rush defense isn’t quite as bad, but is still in a pretty bad place.  I think they look even worse than they really are because the linebackers and safeties are so preoccupied with their suckitude as a pass defense, they’re not able to properly focus on the run game.

And that’s where the potential silver lining lies…

Here’s what I would do if I were game-planning today:  I’d put my corners on islands and tell me linebackers and safeties to play run-first.  Tell the defense it’s OK if they get torched through the air, but it is unacceptable to lose through a thousand cuts to Christian McCaffrey.  Force Stanford to prove they can beat the Bears through the air.  Put a lot of pressure on Keller Chryst.  Force Stanford to beat the Bears a way that is not very comfortable to them.

It might be that the Bears won’t be able to pull that off, but it’s the ONLY thing they have a remote chance of pulling off.

As for the offense, spread the field and focus on getting all four field spreading play types working:  Deep passing, short passing, inside running, outside running.  With the exception of the WR screens (which just aren’t working!), they should try to be VERY diverse.

But as one can obviously tell, I’m not sitting on a lot of hope that the Bears pull that off.  So while I think there is a path to victory, the opportunity is slim.  And thus my official prediction will be bleak:

Losing streak continues and no bowl game: Cal 17, Furd 42

(The theoretical win would look like Cal 45, Furd 38)

WSU preview

What everyone wants to talk about when previewing a Cal-WSU game is high scores.  But what those people seem to forget is that 2 of the 3 Leach-Dykes matchups had cumulative scores in the 60’s, that I suspect the under won, not the over.  Yes,  yes, 2 years ago the score was 60-59, we all know that.  But last year it was a more comfortable than the score indicates 34-28 Bears victory.

And if you look at the history not just of Cal-WSU but of most teams with high-scoring offenses that are of a similar nature, when they meet, on average the scores tend to be lower.  Why?  Because the defenses are very comfortable defending it.  They saw that offense (or something very similar) for all of Spring and Fall practice.

The problem with 2014 was that both teams had horrible defenses, and that overwhelmed the usual pattern.

Which brings us to this year.  Do both teams have a horrible defense?  No, only one does.  WSU’s defense is getting better every week and although it would be a mistake to overstate how good their defense is, it’s much, much, MUCH better than Cal’s.

Cal’s only hope, is that their defense has an unusually good showing.  And as I said already, going up against this familiar offense does make that more likely.  But unfortunately, the injury situation is so untenable, that I just don’t see it happening.  I was tempted to believe it was possible considering the larger problem this year has been rush defense, and WSU gives the Bears a bit of a break in this department.  But as loss to the Huskies showed, the injuries are plaguing the secondary even more so than the run defense.  So, the more I look at who is hurt and who’s replacing them, I just can’t believe this defense will have success.

And sadly, I do see it happening for WSU.  So as much as my heart believes Cal has a better shot at this than most people think, my head and my official prediction has to be that Cal loses a really, really tough one to take: Cal 31, WSU 59.

Don’t count out the Bears vs. WSU

The Bears need to win 2 of their final 3 to go bowling.  Most people reasonably assume that the likely candidates are Stanford and UCLA.  But here’s my early prediction:  Cal always plays WSU tough and Dykes has the keys to the WSU air-raid.

Expect Saturday’s game to be a close one with a reasonable chance the Bears pull the upset.

(And if you’re wondering where the Washington post-game post is… I’ve said all I’m going to say.)

Washington preview

I must admit, I’m having a bit of cognitive dissonance with Washington.  Is this the same Washington team that Cal was up 27 to 7 over early in the 3rd quarter last year?  It’s not like they’ve had an influx of new guys.  It’s mostly the same guys from last year.  And this year the game is in Berkeley, not Seattle.  How is it possible the Bears are such underdogs?

But at some point you can’t ignore the evidence: The beat-downs of Oregon and Stanford.  The solid victory over Utah.  Or perhaps it is just as simple as 8-0.  There’s no doubt that UW is a vastly improved team.  And the way they’re improved is precision and consistency.  Turnovers are down.  Penalties are down.  Execution consistency is WAAAY up.

And let us not forget, UW turned the ball over 5 times against Cal last year.  We can’t expect that again tonight.

And then there’s the Bear’s struggles.  Last year the UW defense held Cal to 30 points, their lowest score in a win all season.  It frankly wasn’t the Bears best offensive performance of the season.  However, the defense played one of their better games.  The game ball deserved to be given to the defense, not the offense.  I don’t think I have to mention how much of a rarity that is.

So, this is what is going to happen this year:  UW will play a clean game and not give the Bears extra possession and free points.  The UW defense will frustrate the Cal offense enough that we won’t be seeing 40+ points on the Cal scoreboard.  Of the above statements I am nearly 100% confident.  The question mark, if there is one, is the defense.  Can they keep the Huskies in check and get the ball back to the Cal offense.  If they can repeat last year’s performance, the Bears have a chance to pull the upset.  More likely, they’re the rusty swinging gate that results in another painful loss.

Cal loses big: Cal 24 – UW 45

USC Preview

Cal hasn’t beaten USC since 2003 and frankly, haven’t come close in a long time.  Until Dykes took over, the previous time the Bears kept it to a one score game was 2007.  Between 2002 and 2007, Tedford had reasonable success trying to beat USC at their own game, pro-style power football.  He only won one of those, but the Bears were competitive in all but one of them.  After 2007, as the Tedford Bears started their decline, Tedford refused to try and beat them any other way and it got worse and worse and worse.

However, after the debacle in 2013, Dykes now has had two games in a row where he’s kept it reasonably close, sticking to his kind of game.  However, the scores are a bit deceptive.  Last year the Bears were down 7-24 and ended up putting up just enough points to get back in it.  I never felt like the Bears were threatening to win.  It was a similar story in 2014 with the Bears down 9-31 and 16-38 late and the best the Bears could do was to get it close late.  Again, I never felt like the Bears were threatening.

Which brings us to this year.  What is clear from the history of Cal vs. USC games is that two things need to happen for the Bears to win:

  1. Cal needs to win in the trenches
  2. Cal needs to start strong, leading early in the game

So, can they do that?

I actually think the Bears have a better chance in the trenches than in quite a while.  The offensive line is gelling and can both open running lanes and protect the QB reasonably well.  And while the defensive line has been a bit inconsistent, they’ve shown flashes of being pretty disruptive even against teams with pretty good offensive lines.

Starting strong will be the difficult part.  A Thursday night game, during mid-terms, on 6 days rest, playing a team on twice the rest they’ve had, coming off two back-to-back (kinda, there was a bye in there) overtime games, all point to a difficult/slow/tired start.  Add in that the LA Coliseum has been a very intimidating place for the Bears to begin with, and I’m just not feeling it.

I think there are two scenarios that are the likely ones:

  1. Cal is just too tired and gets blown off the ball, losing the game in the trenches, and loses horrifically.
  2. Cal has a slow start and can just never catch up.

Neither one results in a win.  Bears lose in heart-breaking fashion: 23-38

(And here’s hoping my reverse prediction mojo keep working!)

Oregon preview

There are a number of things that set off red flags for me when looking at an upcoming game that the Bears are favored in:

  1. The opponent had a bye
  2. The opponent has been under-performing
  3. The opponent has typically had our number (should have been a red-flag against Oregon State)
  4. Cal has recently lost a game where their biggest strength was exposed
  5. Cal has an under-appreciated injury (no Enwere is not one)
  6. The game is not on Saturday (Cal is on a 7 game losing streak, the last win coming in 2005 at New Mexico St.)
  7. The opposing team has a really good defense
  8. The game is a road game

When 5 of my 8 red flags (1, 2, 3, 4 and 6) are going off, I’m going to be your source of doom and gloom.

The best case scenario is that Cal gets the offense back on track, manages to corral the Oregon rushing attack, but does it in a way that prevents the Oregon freshman QB (Justin Herbert) from finding his rhythm.  But I think if any one of those things goes wrong, the Bears are doomed.  Let’s take them one by one:

  1. Cal gets the offense back on track: My hope here is that we really can blame the passing game troubles against Oregon State on Webb’s injury.  So far this season, press coverage on the Bears has not worked.  It was really surprising that it worked so well for OSU.  And while in the back of my head I know that this wouldn’t be the 1st time the Beavers showed the rest of the conference how to shut down the Cal offense, I’m going to believe that this is the least likely of the group to bite the Bears.
  2. Cal manages to corral the Oregon rushing attack:  So who are the real Bears… the Bears that kept Utah in check or the ones that looked like a high school team against Oregon State?  Beyond that, how will the Bears do against their first real read-option team of the season?  The likely answers to both questions are concerning.  This is the one that is most likely to hurt the Bears.
  3. Oregon’s freshman QB finds his rhythm:  Don’t under estimate this one.  The mid-season bye tends to be one of those moments that a freshman QB starts putting things together and the game starts “slowing down” for him.  There are two techniques that tend to prevent young QBs from improving: Get lots of pressure on them or throw lots of confusing pass protection schemes at them.  I haven’t seen much from the Bears this season that would suggest they could accomplish either method.  The counter to this is that this QB hasn’t exactly shown a lot of promise, so perhaps it doesn’t bite the Bears.  But don’t be shocked if it does.

If there is good news, this shouldn’t be a keep-away game for the Bears like the Utah game.  The Bears should have a fair number of chances to get the offense working.  But the risk is that it is a shootout and Cal just can’t keep pace.

And that’s what I’ve got to predict: Cal 38, Oregon 51

Why are you reading my predictions?

MAN… do I stink at predicting these games or WHAT!?!  I’m 1-4 this season.

Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be wrong this weekend, but it’s clear I don’t have my finger on the pulse of this team so far.

Utah preview

I don’t have a lot of time to write a preview, but I did want to give a quick prediction.

Last year the Bears weathered a strong attack from the Utah lines and did much better than expected at it.  It’s not that they won in the trenches, they just made it so it wasn’t a huge advantage for Utah.  Unfortunately, Goff tried to put the game too much on his shoulders and threw a number of ill-advised interceptions.  It was without a doubt his worst game of the year.  Had he played better, Cal would have won, without a doubt.

So, can Cal be good enough in the trenches AGAIN to allow Cal’s superior offensive talent a chance?  My gut says it is possible, this year’s lines have been stout at time and have been getting better.  But I also fear that it won’t be enough.  I expect Webb to have  better game than Goff did (he won’t try to do too much), but when it comes down to the end,  Utah will have wore the Bears down too much and will control the game late.

Bears fall to a losing record: 23-31