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Ridiculously early thoughts on 2019

I posted a condensed version of this on CGB and thought I’d expand on my thoughts here:

Looking forward to 2019, even though it is ridiculously early to think about it (we haven’t seen the bowl game and whether of month of extra practice can help the offense see some rhythm, nor who gets injured in Spring ball or transfers or what sort of transfers the Bears get), here’s my best shot at a prediction.

I see a year of slight regression, at least on the win/loss ledger.

Let’s start with the non-conference games.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team lose at least 1 non-conference game. I think people underestimate how good UC Davis has gotten and N. Texas is no slouch, plus Ole Miss on the road won’t be easy.  All of those games will be winnable, but at the same time, tougher non-conference games have a way of causing an unexpected loss among them.  Particularly when Cal has to play UW in the middle of their non-conference schedule, it’s not hard to think the Bears may lose 1 of the 3.

Next up, in conference Cal switches from Arizona and Colorado to ASU and Utah.  If we had stayed with UA and CU, I’d be optimistic the Bears would gain a win from 2018.  Cal would have Arizona at home against a team they should have beat last year.  Add to this that Colorado is in rebuilding mode after letting their head coach gone and it’s reasonable to hope the Bears would go 2-0 where they only went 1-1 against this pair in 2018.  But ASU and Utah is entirely different.  ASU made great strides in 2018 and year 2 under their new head coach will likely be another step in the right direction.  Luckily that game is at home, so the Bears have a good shot at a win, but it’s not exactly going to be easy.  As for Utah, that’s a *REALLY* tough game and one has to fear a loss.  So that suggests at best the Bears repeat their 1-1 record against this pair, but going 0-2 is far too likely.

The remainder of the schedule are teams the Bears play every year.  I’ll start with the 3 teams Cal lost by more than one score:  Oregon, UCLA and Stanford.  All 3 games were at home in 2018 and thus all 3 are on the road in 2019.  Oregon is the one I think might be most likely to see a regression in 2019, with Herbert gone at QB, but going to Eugene is always very tough.  It’s hard for a realistic person to hope for a win from that one.  UCLA is on the rise and will be much better next year.  Stanford might be the best hope for a win from the 3 as Stanford stadium isn’t exactly a tough road environment.  But since Cal isn’t going to have a realistic chance to win against Stanford until it wins in the trenches, I don’t have a lot of hope for a win here.  (More on this later.)  So the Bears stay 0-3 against these teams in 2019 from my way of thinking.

Next up, Oregon State… that was an easy win in 2018 and there’s every reason to expect that stays the same with the game in Berkeley in 2019.  But since they won in 2018, it won’t gain the Bears anything win/loss wise, by winning again.

Probably the best hope for a flip to the win column is WSU, the last loss from 2018 left to be considered.  With Minshew gone and the game in Berkeley, that game could be a win.  I tell you what, let’s assume that for now and move on to the big problem spots, even though The Pirate seems to have WSU in a place where they can recover from losing a good QB very quickly.

Cal beat both UW and USC in 2018.  Who think’s they’re going to repeat that?  There is some good news on this front as UW losses their 4-year QB, as well as a number of other notable seniors.  And since the Bears get them in the 2nd week of the season, UW won’t have had much time to break in their replacements.  However, the Bears *barely* beat UW at home and now have to go to the very tough Husky stadium to play the game.  Again, that’s not as tough in September as November, but still, I’d feel much better about that game in Berkeley.

Then there’s USC.  USC has so much talent.  Cal caught them at a pretty good time in 2018.  The good news is that the Bears play USC in Berkeley, but if history is any guide, that’s of little comfort.  USC always brings their big annoying band and lots of alum show up.  The game often feels pretty 50/50 crowd wise.  So while there’s a chance the Bears win this one, it’s not going to be easy.  So again, winnable, but not easy.

So with two winnable but not easy games, the safe assumption is they split them.  Just for simplicity, let’s say the Bears beat USC at home and lose to UW on the road.

So, adding that all up based on just schedule and trajectory of the other programs, I’m predicting an extra non-conference loss, an extra loss from the AZ/mountain pair, and an extra loss from USC/UW, with one new win to offset that from WSU.  The result is the 7-5 of 2018 will become 5-7 in 2019 unless the Bears can find a way to win the Big Game.

But all of that analysis, I didn’t much consider how the Bears would change.  That was all based on how I see the opponents changing.  So how do I see the Bears progressing next year?

If there’s good news, the losses to graduation are mostly replaceable with one huge exception.  The toughest losses are Kunaszyk and Laird.  But behind them are a number of underclassmen who have gotten enough playing time in 2018 to show their potential.  I’m optimistic that the Bears have enough talent behind them to not cause a notable effect.  Losing Wharton and Ways at WR is troublesome, but again, there’s a lot of young WR’s who have potential, plus Noa back from injury.  One could be concerned about the the 3 seniors lost at TE, but that would only be true if those 3 guys were of much help in 2018.  Hudson never returned to his former glory after a year off from injury and Bunting, while the best TE, wasn’t exactly lighting up the field.  If anything, perhaps the younger guys waiting in the wings have the opportunity to give us a positive surprise.

But then there’s the offensive line.  OUCH!  The losses of Bennett, Ooms and Mekari are going to be hard to replace. It was immediately obvious how much the O-line is going to miss Mekari based on the O-Line play against Colorado and Stanford after his ankle injury.  And it’s not like Cal can assist a weaker O-Line with TE’s and our FB.  We already talked about the TE’s.  As for FB, McMorris did a great job of filling the gaps in the offensive line and he’s gone next year.  So summing that all up, I’m very concerned about the O-line next year.

I am optimistic about better QB play. Garbers will improve and Bowers will hopefully be back and in the mix. And McIlwain, while it may not be at QB, will probably find some way to contribute.  So the question becomes, can improved QB play be enough to offset the O-Line losses?  I”m having a hard time believing that.

Now, the defense looks like it’s going to be every bit as good as 2018.  The losses to graduation are minimal outside of Kunaszyk and Funches, and there’s a lot of talent behind them waiting to prove themselves.  Plus the existing starters are only going to get better.  So even if the offense stinks as much as I fear, the defense will keep the Bears in a lot of games.

Nevertheless, it feels more like a 5-7 season, with upside to 6-6.  Yes, if the offense can find some magic it didn’t have in 2018, the team could take that next step forward.  ASU, UCLA, Stanford and a sweep of UW and USC are all possible with a good offense.  That would be 9-3.  Yet I just don’t see that happening.  Frankly, I much more fear that teams realize what Stanford did… the key to beat the Bears is just not to let the Cal defense win the game.  Be conservative and win the game 10-6.  And if that happens, we could see the Bears losing to both USC and UW, as well as not flipping WSU to the positive side of the ledger.  That would be a terrifying 3-9 scenario.

So there you have it, somewhere between 9-3 and 3-9 with 5-7 being my best guess.  Here it is game by game:

  • UC Davis – Win
  • @UW – Loss
  • N. Texas – Win
  • @Ole Miss – Loss
  • ASU – Loss
  • @Oregon – Loss
  • Bye
  • OSU – Win
  • @Utah – Loss
  • Bye (too close to the prior one, frankly)
  • WSU – Win
  • USC – Win
  • @Stanford – Loss
  • @UCLA – Loss (thinking about it, I have the Bears in the same situation as 2017, 5-6 going into a road game vs. UCLA in the Rose Bowl stadium.  We’ll see how much better UCLA is by then, but if they don’t take as big of a leap as I’m expecting, the Bears will be very motivated to pick up that win and might just pull off the upset and get to 6-6 that way.)

Big Game preview

I didn’t publish my first pass at the Big Game preview before the game was delayed, but I had mostly finished it.   So, what you see below is that version with the changes I’ve decided to make marked up (deleted in strike-through, new in bold blue)

One of the first things I do when thinking about an upcoming opponent is look at previous common opponents.  By the time the Big Game rolls around, there are generally a lot, although the way our cross-division scheduling goes, there are fewer than one would think as Stanford explicitly and purposely always plays the opposite of the two Arizona and Mountain schools that Cal does each year.  (in other words, if we play Arizona, they play ASU and vice versa.  Same goes for Utah and Colorado.)  Nevertheless, there are 5 common opponents at this point (in order that Stanford played them):

  • USC: Both Cal and Stanford won defensive struggles, with Stanford’s defensive performance being dominant in both halves.
  • Oregon: Stanford squeaked out a win they didn’t deserve (they were down 24 – 7 at half and 21 – 31 with 4 minutes left in the game) and Oregon blundered away, whereas Cal was never really competitive.
  • WSU: Both lost a one-score game, Stanford in a high scoring affair and Cal in a low scoring affair
  • UW: Stanford lost a one-score game whereas Cal won a one-score game
  • OSU: Both teams kicked the crud out of OSU
  • UCLA: Stanford won a shootout on the road, Cal got blown out at home

That’s a pretty even set of results, if one ignores UCLA.  But the UCLA games are so far apart, both in regards to how Cal and Stanford have evolved as well as how UCLA came to life but then also was more predictable.  As for the rest, UW goes in Cal’s favor, Oregon goes in Stanford’s favor.  The other three were pretty similar.

Both teams are also similar in that they generally win games through a strong defensive performance.  Both teams have “opportune” offenses that count on the defense giving them plenty of chances and shortening the game.

So how do you predict a game when the teams are as even as this when one thinks the teams are even?  You go to the emotional components… who wants the win more?  And so I ask you, who is more motivated:

  • The team that is excited about being bowl eligible or the team that team that has underwhelmed expectations
  • The team that just ended a losing streak or the team is losing to teams they are used to beating (UW and WSU in particular)
  • The team that is sick and tired of losing their rivalry game for 8 years now or the team that is a bit too comfortable with how easy it has been beating their cross town rivals
  • The home team or the away team

All signs suggest Cal is going to be the team that comes out of the tunnel ready to impose their will and Stanford will be the team that underwhelms.

Add to this, I think this is the week the Cal offense breaks out.  For weeks they were hampered by the McIlwain experiment.  Last week, none of the breaks went their way.  The fundamentals of this offense are better than we think (not that they’re great, just better than we think).  I say this is the week where the long Garbers runs don’t get called back by marginal holding calls or bogus fumble calls.  I say this is the week Garbers connects on a couple of long passes that have been just out of reach in previous weeks.  I say this is the week we realize that the future is bright behind Laird and and where Chris Brown breaks a couple of long runs (he is due).

But then the last two weeks the Stanford offense has found new life.  They’re going all-in on out-jumping defenses for big pass gains.  Bryce Love has (somewhat) returned to health.  As for the Bears, the offense seems to have regressed with Garbers having his weakest game of the season against Colorado.  On paper, all of a sudden, it feels like Stanford is in the drivers seat.  Stanford has just a good enough offense to suggest the Bear defense will struggle to keep them in the low teens and the Bear offense is not good enough that it’s reasonable to expect they get into the 20’s.  All of a sudden, on paper, it seems like the Bears are the underdogs.

So what does one go with… the emotional aspects that suggest the Bears have the advantage or the physical advantages of Stanford? 

I say this is the Big Game that most feels like 2002… a cathartic, joyful changing of the guard.

Bears win big: 31 to 10.

Unfortunately, as much as my heart wants to tell me otherwise, Shaw has proven season after season to have his team ready to play every week and a game plan that is pretty well suited for most every type of opponent.  The Bears put up a noble effort, but Stanford won’t make enough mistakes to let the Cal defense win the game.

Bears lose a close one: 10-16

(Here’s hoping I’m wrong.  To that end, if you want to hear what my heart wants to believe, read Mike Silver over at GGB: https://www.californiagoldenblogs.com/2018/11/30/18119325/big-game-chat-with-cal-fan-extraordinaire-mike-silver)

Colorado preview

I felt a lot more confident about my Colorado prediction before they fired their head coach, Coach Mike MacIntyre.  Although it’s not nearly as intense, I feel similarly about MacIntyre as I did when Tedford was fired.  While one might quibble with the timing, it was a reasonable decision to let him go.  But MacIntyre is a man of integrity and it’s disappointing to see such a good guy let go.

So the question is, how does the team respond?  Do they try to ‘win one for the Gipper’?  Or perhaps it is the opposite, and their frustrations of a tough season are released now that MacIntyre is gone?  Yet another factor: Does the interim coaching staff change anything significant making it hard for the Bears to prepare for a team they’ve got no film on?  Never forget that an interim staff sees moments like this as an opportunity to demonstrate that they are ready to coach at the next level.

On the other side of the ledger is that this could be a team that lost their heart when MacIntyre was let go.  It’s already been a tough season, how could that makes it better?  Or perhaps the new coaches are just introducing chaos that won’t help.

And to add to all of that is the fact that the Buffs are one game from bowl eligibility with just this game left.  It amplifies all the above possibilities.  They could have a lot more fight or they could be ready for the season to be over.

It’s really hard to tell.

But let’s for a moment pretend that all of this weren’t true and this was just a regular mid-season conference game.  How do I see it playing out?

First off, I see a Cal offense that is ready to have a breakout game against a mediocre Colorado defense (lowest point total given up during their 6 game losing streak: 27 to UW).  Their best performance all year was probably against ASU, who they played at home and beat 28-21.  All 3 of their below 20 points surrendered games were against far lesser teams (remember that the UCLA team they beat was still early in the learning process).

Second, I see a Cal defense that is going to thrive.  Look at this point totals for CU.  7 against WSU.  13 against UW.  20 against USC.  (I’ll even ignore the 7 against Utah since Cal hasn’t played Utah and the game was in the snow.)  This is not a particularly good offense from CU and it’ll make the Bear defense’s job easier.  Plus, I see a team that is going to try and “play loose” and try things they don’t usually try.  That’s got ‘4 interceptions’ written all over it.

Finally, here’s the common opponent analysis (in order of Colorado playing them):

  • UCLA: Colorado won big, Cal lost big (both at home)
  • USC: Colorado lost by 2 scores, Cal won by 1 point (both in LA)
  • UW: Colorado lost by 2 TD’s, Cal won by 2 points (CU on road, Cal at home)
  • OSU: Colorado lost by a TD after a horrific meltdown, Cal won big (CU at home, Cal on road)
  • Arizona: Both teams lost by about a TD (both in AZ)
  • WSU: Colorado lost big, Cal lost close (CU at home, Cal on road)

With the exception of the UCLA game, which comes with the huge caveat of how much UCLA improved between when Cal and Colorado played them, Cal did better in every game (albeit just slightly against Arizona).  And this is true despite the fact that Cal had the worse of the home vs. road matchups in that series.  So it’s hard not to look at that list and conclude that Cal is the better team.

So, if you had me pick this game without the emotional aspects of it, I think Cal wins something like 20-13.  But the more I think about it, the more I think the Bears are going to come into this game ready to make a statement and Colorado is going to come into this game wishing they had gotten more turkey on Thanksgiving.  Add to it the likelihood that what little extra effort they bring is likely to play right into Cal’s ball hawking tendencies and I think this game goes futher in Cal’s favor.

I think it gets ugly by the 4th quarter and getting worse for CU every minute until Cal calls off the dogs.

Bears win 37 – 6

USC preview

I’m sick of watching the Bears lose to USC.  I’m sick of watching USC look more and more beatable, just to get their act together just when the Bears come to town.

Part of me thinks that’s exactly what is going to happen tomorrow.  USC has been struggling all season but seems to be figuring out some of their problems and ways to solve them.  Make no mistake, this is a talented team.  They’re the only team that has beaten WSU.  If they play to their potential, it takes a very good team to beat them.  Frankly, if USC plays to their potential, it would take an absolute break out game from the Cal offense for the Bears to have a chance.

But it’s not a given that USC will play to their theoretical potential.  If we assume they play as they have been all season, head to head match-ups suggest the Bears have a real chance:

  • Cal beat OSU by WAAAAY more than USC, both playing in Corvallis
  • USC won a tight game at Arizona whereas the Bears lost a close one in the same stadium
  • USC won a squeaker one over WSU at home whereas the Bears lost a tight one on the road

Perhaps the straight up results suggests that USC is the slightly better team, but when one adds the subjective, particularly the home and away, and the Bears are pretty evenly matched.

For me this game comes down to whether the Bears can win in the trenches on both sides of the ball.  While I’m less concerned about the defense, USC is one of those teams with offensive lines that can make good defenses look mediocre.  They can grind out 4 to 6 yard runs all the way down the field and put together 3+ TD drives where there’s nothing the defense can do to stop it.  And while this isn’t USC’s best offensive line, the talent is there.  Cal can’t let that happen if they want to win.  But as I said, I’m more optimistic about this than the other side of the ball.

On offense, the Bears need to finish what they start and they need to hold onto the ball.  They absolutely can not afford to give USC free points.  They need to be prepared to play a slog of a game and not get desperate.  My fear is they will get desperate and the result will be costly turnovers they can’t afford.

But the thing is, this USC team can be beat.  This is the year.  With the possible exception of Stanford, they haven’t seen a defense as good as Cal’s.  I’m not going down to the LA Coliseum for the first time in a decade to watch the Bears lose.  I’m going there to watch them win!

Bears end the streak: Cal 24 – USC 20

WSU preview

Running late this week, but want to make sure I go on record.  I think the Bears have a real shot at yet another upset today.  Their defense is well suited to defend the Air Raid.  And if the game was in Berkeley, I’d be more tempted to predict a win.  But on the road, late at night on the frozen potato patch (not to be confused with the frozen tundra… in Eastern WA, they grow potatoes), it’s just a bit too much.  And that’s particularly true when one remembers the offense still is only partially functional.

Bears lose 17 to 31.

Or maybe I’m just saying that to keep the good mojo working.  I keep predicting losses and the Bears keep wining…

UW preview

A quick backwards looking note: Last weeks game was SOOOO cathartic.  And quintessentially Cal.  Just when we’ve given up hope, they deliver a game that was sorely needed to keep us from all out despair.

Onto the Huskies…

Washington has been the class of the conference the last couple years.  But this year they seem to have come back to the pack a bit.  They barely lost to Oregon in overtime in a game they should have won with a last second field goal.  They let UCLA and ASU hang around to only win by one score in each.  The Colorado game was a one score game until mid-way through the 3rd quarter.  In a certain way they’re like Stanford, they focus on playing straight-up, mistake free football.  They have enough talent that they don’t need to get too fancy to win.  But this year the margin of victory playing that way is a bit smaller than the last two years.

It also means they’re more vulnerable to bad bounces of the ball this year, particularly when it’s a lower scoring game, which I think the Cal defense has the talent and scheme to at least potentially accomplish.  With Chase Garbers back as QB, the Cal offense is a lot more balanced and got back a deep-ball threat (admittedly a minor one).

So I see a theoretical possibility of a win here.  The Cal defense exerts their will and keeps giving the ball back to the offense.  Garbers and Co. take a ‘chipping away at it’ attitude combined with the occasional home-run attempt.  They get 3 TD’s on their own and the defense adds one and the Bears pull off a 28-17 shocker.  It could definitely happen.

Alas, I think UW will play just clean enough defense and the Cal offense will have too many hiccups and the Bears are more likely to lose this one in a game where we yet again leave impressed with the Cal defense and frustrated with the lack of offense, and perhaps, livid about a couple of extremely costly turnovers.

Bears lose 16 to 27

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.