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OSU preview

Games like this are so hard to predict.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bears in full meltdown mode and lose 13 to 38 or something like that.  I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bears clean up their act, play to their potential and win 31 to 13.  It’s all about mental preparation and emotional fortitude.  If it was just about talent levels and X’s and O’s, the Bears should win.  But after last week’s performance, who here thinks the fundamental issue is talent and X’s and O’s?  (OK, perhaps a bit on offense it is.)

And thus it may mean it will come down to those first few odd bounces of the ball and small mistakes that every team has and it’s just blind luck how big the implications of those small mistakes are.  You know, a guard takes just too wide of a stance in pass blocking, the tackle trips on the guards foot, thus the end rusher gets a free blind-side attack on the QB, who fumbles the ball and it’s returned for a touchdown… all because the guard took just a bit too wide of a blocking stance.

Great teams find ways to keep those sorts of mistakes from unduly changing the game.  They also find ways to capitalize on the other team making those small mistakes.  But neither Cal nor OSU are great teams.

So to sum up, if there were no odd bounces of the ball and no odd mistakes, plus Cal puts the past behind them and plays to their potential, then Cal should have a solid win.  But it’s foolish to think that’s how it will play out.

I’m going to take pessimist’s route and hope to be pleasantly surprised.  Bears lose a wild one.  Mistakes early put them in a hole, they claw most of the way back, but late mistakes doom them.

Bears lose 20 – 31.

UCLA preview

This will be a bit of a shorter preview as I’m a bit short on time.  UCLA might just be the scariest 0-5 team in the country.  First of all, the talent is there, at least when judged by recruiting stars.  Second of all, they’ve played a really hard schedule: Two top 10 ranked teams.  The only undefeated team in the Pac-12.  Heck, the worst record team they’ve played is 4-1 Fresno State.  Does anyone think Cal would be 3-2 against that schedule?  I guess it’s possible the Bears could have pulled that off with wins over Cincinnati, Fresno State and Colorado, but considering the disaster in the desert last week, it’s hard to argue the Bears would be better than 2-3 if they played UCLA’s schedule.  It’s also not hard to imagine they’d be 1-4.

Now admittedly, UCLA has not only lost, they’ve lost by sizable margins.  Only one was a single score loss.  But that’s where point #1 comes in… there’s talent on this team.  When one combines that with the fact they’re learning a whole new system with new head coach Chip Kelly, it’s not the most irrational fear to have that they’re starting to play to their potential, or will be by tomorrow in Berkeley.  Indeed, their best game was their most recent, a 24-31 loss to Washington.  And you know they’re looking at this game against Cal as one of their few remaining possibilities of a win.  They’ll bring everything they have to win this one.

At the same time, Cal has been under performing their potential the last two games.  Something tells me that this week they play a lot closer to it.  I’ve talked a lot about the history of matchups in my predictions this year: Struggling at altitude.  Struggling in the desert.  If I’m going to be fair, the history of the UCLA @ Cal matchups is *REALLY* favorable.  Since the turn of the century, the Bears are 7-1 against UCLA.  And that includes some really surprising wins: 2000, 2012 and 2016 in particular.  Those were some pretty crummy Cal teams, yet they seemed to be able to beat UCLA in Berkeley anyway.

So, while I’m really scared UCLA is better than their record indicates, getting better every week and I greatly fear this is the week UCLA puts all the pieces together, in the end I’m going to go with the Bears.  I think they also clean up the mistakes of the last two weeks.

Bears win: 34-20

Arizona preview

The first thing one needs to do when predicting a game like this is figure out what to make of the last game.  Even though Cal lost by about the amount I expected, they lost in a very different fashion than I expected.  I can’t think of the last game a Wilcox Bears team was that mistake prone.  And part of why that was so disappointing was that the Bears mostly seemed to play an even game against Oregon… except for the big mistakes.

There was one exception to that… the pass rush.  Cal couldn’t get a pass rush on Justin Herbert to save their life.  The few times they did, they did it by letting themselves be very exposed in the secondary and Herbert took advantage of it.  So at a minimum it suggests that Cal’s D-Line is a bit suspect against a good O-Line.

Of course it’s tempting to go to Cal and Arizona’s one common opponent thus far.  Arizona was manhandled by BYU at home in their 1st game of the season.  One week later, Cal went to BYU and won, fairing pretty well in the trenches (I won’t go so far as to say they dominated at the line, but I think Cal  got the better end of it).  That would suggest a Cal win, yes?

Well… maybe.  Arizona had a really slow start to the season.  They seem to be improving.  The embarrassing loss to Houston seems to have been a turning point for their team.  So on one level, I tend to discount their BYU performance at this point.  On the other hand, the one part of a team that seems to be less likely to see big changes over the course of the season is the lines.  Linemen win with size and power.  Size and power doesn’t change much from week to week.  Thus there’s reason to believe that Cal’s ability to win against the BYU lines that manhandled Arizona suggests Cal will win in the trenches.

That’s a very good place to be.

If the game was in Berkeley, that would be enough for me.  But Cal dreams go to die in the desert.  At first I was thinking, “Well, maybe the trip to BYU suggests the Bears have gotten over their road woes.”  But then I remembered last season the Bears beat North Carolina on the road early and then proceeded to lose every single conference road game, including two embarrassing ones (Colorado and UCLA).

So ultimately, I don’t have faith in this Bears team to win on the road in conference yet.  I think Arizona and Cal are overall equally matched, as demonstrated by last years double overtime heart breaker in Berkeley.  I think Cal may have a slight advantage on the lines, although I’m concerned the D-Line’s performance against Oregon is a sign of things to come.  I think Arizona is improving.  But I’m also optimistic about the level of play Cal demonstrated against Oregon if they could just clean up those mistakes.  Speaking of which and repeating myself, I’m terrified of a game in Tucson.

Add that all up and I expect another close loss that comes down to the last couple possessions: Cal 27 – Arizona 30.

Oregon preview

This is a very dangerous time of year to do predictions, that time when the team is undefeated after a few games of questionable quality opponents, but before the team gets into the heart of its schedule.  It’s a time when one’s fandom may inject unwarranted optimism into a prediction that isn’t merited.  But hold on a second… as an Old Blue, I think the other possibility is likely as well.  I’ve seen too many seasons start like this yet fall apart.  Might I be too tempted to assume the Bears can’t meet the challenge in front of them?

So as I said, it’s a dangerous time to do a prediction… but we’ll soldier on anyway.

Oregon played 3 powder-puffs that proved nothing and then played a home game against a Stanford team that is a little hard to pin down.  At times Stanford has looked to be its old powerful self:  Big, physical, with a smart QB who’s just good enough to make the throws he needs to keep their opponents defense honest.  But at other times, it has looked somewhat mediocre, not nearly as physical and powerful as one expects from a good Stanford team.  As for the Stanford defense, it’s pretty good.  It gave up 10, 3 and 10 respectively in the 1st 3 games.

Oregon’s offense handled itself fairly well against Stanford.  It was pretty physical and held its own in the trenches.  But I think it had an advantage in that Oregon’s game plan was more complex than during the 3 powder-puffs.  They were able to save their ‘new coach’ advantage for Stanford.  To some degree I think that brings a notable caveat to the 24 1st half points that Oregon was able to score on Stanford.  At the same time, the 2nd half Oregon moved the ball pretty well, yet shot itself in the foot with turnovers.  Oregon could have scored 21+ 2nd half points if they hadn’t turned the ball over twice.

The long and short of it is that I think Cal’s defense is going to have its hands full on Saturday.  Oregon is fast and big enough in the trenches, as well is back to their old self in spreading the defense out enough to make it tough to defend them.  This is not to say that I think Cal is doomed, but I also think Cal won’t be able to shut down Oregon.  If Cal wants to win, it’s going to need some points of its own.

So it all comes down to which offense Cal is able to muster.  Will it be the one lacking in creativity that has drove me nuts at times this season?  Or will it be the very diverse, surprisingly explosive one that we’ve seen glimpses of in key moments?  My guess is that it will be a little of both and the key will be whether we see it early.  If Cal can have a couple scoring drives in their first 3 or 4 drives, Cal might have a shot at the upset.  If they wait until the mid-2nd quarter to find their rhythm, the defense will get too tired too early and even if the score is close through the 3rd quarter, by the end of the game, Oregon will pull away.

Ultimately, that’s what I think will happen.  It will be a low scoring 1st half, Cal will be in reach (say down 7 to 13 at the half), but the 2nd half will be their undoing.

Bears lose: 20 – 34

(Here’s hoping I’m wrong)

Idaho State Preview

I don’t have a lot to say about Idaho State.  Cal has never lost a game against an FCS opponent, nor against a Big Sky opponent.  That includes the year that the Bears only won 1 game (2013: Portland St.).  And when one adds in that Idaho St. isn’t even a particularly good FCS team (last year they were 2-6 in the Big Sky) and it’s not hard to predict a win.

But here’s what I think is worth predicting:

  • The Bears will be doing a lot of personnel experimenting on both sides of the ball.  We’ll see a lot more backups playing and they’ll be playing early in the game.  The result will be that while the Bears will cruise to victory, it will feel a bit more bumpy than it should.
  • This will include Bowers getting his last shot at impressing the coaches that he deserves to be the starting QB.
  • The Bears will call very vanilla plays on both sides of the ball.  They won’t do a lot to reveal to their conference foes what they intend to do later in the season.
  • We will see a lot of over-the-top passing attempts, trying to evaluate how good each QB is at them in a game.

But overall it will be the expected yawner and the Bears will cruise to victory on a pleasant and brisk/windy (although not unusually so) afternoon in Berkeley.  If you want to make watching it interesting, spend a lot of time reading jersey numbers looking for which backups are in and then key on them during the plays to see how they’re doing.

Bears win 48-10.

BYU preview

Sometimes you just have to embrace who you are… and for me, that means embracing being an Old Blue.  I’ve been a season ticket holder since 1999.  That’s 20 seasons.  I’m running the longest standing Cal Football blog, dating back to 2007 on this site and 2004 overall.  I’ve seen a lot.  I’ve seen the incompetence of head coach who was a great guy (Holmoe) and learn that it’s really hard to keep that in perspective.  “Way to go, HOLMOE!”  That was the chant of 2000.  I saw the rise and fall of the Tedford era.  I watched the Dykes experiment never quite materialize.  I’ve seen year after year of promise mostly evaporate into mediocrity.

But more importantly than anything else, at least for this upcoming week, I’ve seen (often in person) the horrible debacle of what happens when the Bears go to the high desert of Nevada, Utah and Colorado.  Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, shall we?:

That’s *every* game during the time of this blog in the high desert.  Before that, the games get pretty few and far between anyway, being before Colorado and Utah joined the conference.

So let’s review those 7 games.  I predicted a win in 6 of the 7.  Cal won 2 of them.  And both of them were against pretty darned weak teams.  Colorado State is never that good and early 2007 was the pinnacle of the Tedford era.  Cal would a few weeks later head to Oregon and beat the highly ranked Ducks in Autzen.  That was a *really* good Cal team before Longshore was injured.  So it’s hard to get too excited about beating CSU at altitude that year.  And then in 2011, Colorado would end up going 3-9 in their first season in the conference (although oddly, the game versus Cal was a non-conference game).  So again, not exactly a great team the Bears beat.

But for the rest of them, time and time again the Bears looked like the better team (one game aside), sometimes significantly so.  Then the Bears go there and not just lose, but get throttled.  If I were to write down the top-10 losses in Cal history that got me most upset, 4 of the above 5 losses would most definitely be on the list.  Those 4 games were maddening, heart-breaking affairs.

Ironically, of the 7 games, the only one where one can argue the Bears played well was one of the losses: the 2015 loss to Utah.

So why am I beating this dead horse so viciously?  Because we need to get it through our thick skulls, that’s why.  Time and again we forget how hard it is to go play at altitude.  It’s *REALLY* hard.  The other team has been conditioning at altitude and is at a significant cardiovascular advantage.  In addition, their passing game has been practicing throwing and catching balls in the thin air.  Our beloved Bears?  Not so much.

So here’s the generic game plan that a high-altitude opponent can use against the Bears: Load up the box and force the Bears to throw the ball.  Also, play tight pass coverage on the line.  Don’t give the opposing QB the short passes he can zip in there.  Make him throw over the top with touch.  They know from years of experience that it is hard to get that touch in the heat of a game with only a day to adjust.

Now, if the Bears had the sort of run game that they could power their way through that, one might have reason to hope.  If the team could find a way to make the defense respect runs both inside and outside, thus forcing the defense to cover at least the whole line well, maybe the Bears could spread the field somewhat.  But last Saturday’s results do not bode well.  The run game was not working with UNC loading the box.  That included the sweeps where Cal had real trouble sealing the edges.

And to make matters worse, it looks like BYU has bulked up quite a bit from recent seasons and has big, tough linemen on both sides of the ball.  I watched the BYU @ Arizona game and I saw a BYU team that over-powered Arizona.  For some reason many people like to blame that on Arizona being exceptionally weak, but that’s not what I saw.  I saw a mediocre Pac-12 team get man-handled on the line.

What is Cal?  A mediocre Pac-12 team with delusions of making it to the upper tier.

Sorry, tomorrow the Bears are going to get man-handled at the line.  They’re going to be unable to do the one thing that would give them a shot: Pass the ball over the top.  The defense will keep the score low to give us some hope.  But in the end, what looks like a close game going into the 2nd half will be a grind it out soul-crushing loss that gets worse every minute of the 2nd half.

Bears lose in a big way: Cal 13, BYU 38 (but only 24 at the end of the 3rd quarter)

North Carolina Preview

Remember back when we feared North Carolina? They were going to be a tough test on the Cal schedule. Then we were exuberant when the Bears not only competed but dominated. The Bears must be really good! And while there were a lot of positives to take away from that game, it turns out one of them we shouldn’t have taken was that Cal could beat good teams… because it turned out UNC sucked last year. They went 3-9 and only beat one team in the ACC… Pitt (who themselves went 5-7). When your best win is a squeaker over Pitt, well, it’s a bad year.

Now part of that was injury.  The team that limped it’s way through the season was often compromised by injury.  But no matter how you slice it, UNC was just not as good as we thought when we celebrated victory last year.

But maybe with everyone back from injury, a year to get stronger and better, they’ll have improved more than the Bears, yes?

No.

Not only does UNC only return 13 of their 22 starters, they’re entered the season crippled by the loss of a handful of potential starters before the season even starts due to self imposed sanctions for NCAA violations.  Apparently UNC players were selling their school issued shoes.  As this is an (perhaps unintentional) end-around on paying players (imagine a team that gives its players tens of thousands of dollars of gear with the sole purpose that they sell it for money), it’s obviously a violation of NCAA policy.  A total of 13 football players are suspended, although it’s become a little less clear who will be suspended for the 1st game against Cal due to some planned staggering.  It looks like at least 2 starters will miss the 1st game, including the QB.

So, things definitely look good for the Bears who return most of their starters on both sides of the ball.

Here’s my prediction on how it plays out:  UNC will start slowly, unable to score on their 1st few possessions.  They are traveling cross country after all, and that rarely turns out well in the 1st quarter.  The Bears offense will have some success, but not overwhelming, think 10-0 by the mid-2nd quarter.  The reason will be that things will feel more equal than we expected, particularly in the trenches.  The Bears will struggle on both sides of the line, as this is where they are most depleted, talent and experience wise from last year.  However, as the game progresses, and UNC gets more desperate in their attempt to get back in it, the turnovers will start to pile up.  Cal’s deception on defense will net a few turnovers and widen the margin, so that the score is something like 31-10 entering the 4th quarter.  The Bears will give up some late points and the score will look closer than the actual result.

Bears win 38 – 24.

2018 game-by-game preview

I have to admit, I’m feeling less confident about my predictions than in any season in recent memory.  Which Cal team will show up this year?  Is it the team that had confidence and consistent solid execution early in the 2017 season?  Or is it the tentative, under-performing team that we saw in the 2nd half of the season?  The offense brings back most of its skill players, but how much better is it to have the same inconsistent guys from last year?  (OK, for the QB that’s almost always a good thing.)  The few areas I would be tempted to be optimistic based on the trends of last year, like the offensive line, are the areas with the most turnover.  On defense, I’m a bit more optimistic.  Lots of depth back, but their performance last year in conference was inconsistent after such a promising start to the season. Nevertheless, with an extra year in the system, I suspect they’ll be better.

But nevertheless, despite my unease I’ll soldier on and give it my best shot:

Cal 38 vs. North Carolina 24 – I’ll do a separate post for this one

Cal 20, BYU 24
I’ll be honest, this game scares the crud out of me. Most people think the Bears should win this one handily, and perhaps I would be inclined to agree in Berkeley. But this game is in Utah at 4600 feet. Call me crazy, but Cal’s history of going to the high desert, whether that be UNR, Colorado or Utah, has not been good. Add that to this team struggling on the road in general and I’m terrified. The wildcard is of course how good is this BYU team. Last year was a very weak one for them and many prognosticators don’t seem to be too high on them this year either. But they bring back a lot of their talent and lost a lot of close games last year. That’s a recipe for an under-appreciated team. Sadly, I don’t see the Bears going into the high desert and defeating an under-appreciated team. The offense struggles, particularly early, and the defense gets tired keeping the Bears in the game and can’t hold late in the game.

Cal 52, ID St. 13
The Bears romp in this one. In fact, I feel it will be ugly as there will be a lot of frustration to let loose from the prior week.

Cal 35, Oregon 38
This is another tough one to call. Perhaps I’m being too hard on the Bears for their absolutely pathetic performance last year in Eugene. And if this was 2006 or 2008 and I felt like the Bears would bring a compelling home-field advantage, I might be able to see myself to calling a win here. And there is the fact the Bears are coming off the bye where the Ducks will have just played a bruising game against Stanford. It’s also just after school started for the Ducks who are on the quarter system. So there’s reason for hope. But ultimately, I don’t think the Ducks will be intimidated, distracted or battered sufficiently and will again expose the weak spots of Cal’s defensive scheme and talent.

Cal 31, Arizona 35
Yet another tough one to call. The Bears have a recent history of playing ridiculously close games with Arizona and coming out on the losing side of it. I still have nightmares about last year’s game in Berkeley. If only that got rid of the nightmares of the Hail Mary in the prior game. Arizona is expected to be right about the same place they were last year, so if you have this game in Berkeley again, I might be tempted to call this on in favor of the Bears, but in the desert, our dreams will go to die again.

Cal 45 31, UCLA 17 27
This will be the most cathartic game of the season. Take it to the bank. I have more confidence in this game than any other one on the calendar. It was a disgrace that the Bears lost last year at the Rose Bowl. They play that game 10 times and the Bears should have won at least 8. Now, bring the game to Berkeley, put it earlier in the season, have a year-older defense, and a UCLA team that is wallowing in mediocrity and it’s a recipe for payback. This one will feel a lot like last year’s WSU game. I had completely forgotten that UCLA hired Chip Kelly. That changes everything. Now I’m quite worried about a revitalized UCLA. The good news is that game is at the part of the season that is trouble for new teams. Opposing teams have enough film (and time to review that film) to scheme for what has changed. The ‘new coach’ optimism gets a bit tarnished by the grind of the on-going football season. At this point, one of two things is true: Either UCLA upset both Oklahoma and Washington (and is over-confident) or they didn’t (and have come back down to reality). Being right after the UW game sets up nicely for the Bears. But now it’s not a blowout like I had hoped, it’s a squeaker.

Cal 34, Oregon State 30
Oregon State is picked last in the North. But the Beavers are always more dangerous in Corvallis than in Berkeley. Nevertheless, the Bears, who by my predictions will be 3-3 will be motivated to get on the positive side of the ledger and have the recipe for how to beat the Beavers down cold. Plus, I think as much as the Bears struggled last year on the road, by mid-season this year, I think Wilcox will have the team performing a lot better on the road.

Cal 38, Washington 42
Occasionally there are those games that are technically a loss, but one walks away from them with great hope. That’s how this game against UW will feel. UW will ultimately win, but the Bears will go toe to toe with them and the crowd will be into it big time.

Cal 38, WSU 27
This is one of the few that scare me that I’m going to pick a win. I hate it when the Bears have to go to the frozen potato patch in November. But this is going to be a battle hardened tough team by this point in the season. They also will have a lot of confidence in their ability to beat the Wougs. ESPN picks the Bears to win. Wilner picks the Bears to win. CGB picks the Bears to win. And the writers think Cal is a better team than WSU. I have got to go with the consensus and last year’s result over my fears of Pullman, WA in November.

Cal 13, USC 38
Someday the Bears will find the strength to beat USC. And I suspect when it happens, it will be a surprise to everyone. But until it happens, don’t expect me predicting the Bears to win, particularly in the LA Coliseum. As Wilner says, “I remember Cal’s last victory over the Trojans like it was 15 years ago.”

Cal 24, Stanford 20
This is the year gentlemen! It’s been a long time since I’ve predicted a Big Game win, 2014 to be precise. I’m not sure what I was thinking then, as the Bears got crushed. Nevertheless, Stanford is again over-appreciated this year and the game is in Berkeley. The Bears have played up to Stanford each of the last few years, even when the team didn’t have talent to compete. Last year showed the Bears are capable of going toe-to-toe with Stanford. This year they break through in Berkeley.

Cal 38, Colorado 24
If you’ve been counting, my predictions put the Bears at 6-5 and 4-4 in conference entering the final game of the season. The Bears will play much better against Colorado at home than they did last year at altitude. Very few people outside of Boulder expect much of the Buffs this season. The worst case scenario for the Bears is they are 5-6 and need that final win to be bowl eligible. But my guess is that they’ve already got the 7th loss and don’t have a lot of heart playing on the road on Thanksgiving weekend. The Bears will also be hungry for that winning record both in conference and overall and the improved bowl situation it gives them.

So there you have it, after an early stretch that is trouble, the Bears use a win over UCLA to catapult themselves forward and win all the games they should, plus knock of Stanford en route to a 7-5 (5-4) season and a bid to their first ever Sun Bowl.

Thoughts?

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.