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UNLV pregame thoughts

The biggest problem with the UC Davis game is judging the quality of the UC Davis team. Last year they were a good but not great FCS team. The few pundits who are qualified at the level of judging UCD tend to be a bit too close to being homers, but nevertheless, they speak very highly of this year’s team, one going so far as to say 2022 might be their “best team ever”.

*IF* UC Davis is a top-end FCS team this year, it puts last week’s win in a much better light. Top end FCS teams are no slouches and can beat weaker FBS teams. However, if UC Davis is closer to a mediocre FCS team, then last week’s game is more concerning.

I bring all this up as I’m hoping UNLV will be a better, or at least more reliable, test. Last week UNLV easily beat Idaho State with a halftime score of 45-7. Idaho State is in the Big Sky conference along with UC Davis, although their record was a miserable 1-10. Ironically their lone victory was over UC Davis, at home. (I think we should consider that an outlier… UC Davis is the overall better FCS team.)

Nevertheless, overall it suggests that UNLV is at least good enough to take care of business against a weak FCS team. It’s better than they did last year, losing to their lone FCS opponent (admittedly Eastern Washington is a *MUCH* better FCS team than IDSt.). Last year they were a competent team within the Mountain West, losing a lot of close games en-route to a 2-10 overall record. Again, nothing impressive, but losing 38-30 to Fresno, 27-20 to San Jose, 28-20 to SDSU, suggests they can hang around with the big boys in the Mountain West.

Finally for their past record, their 37-10 loss to Arizona State early last season suggests that a good Pac-12 team should be able to handle them easily.

As far as changes for 2022, they’ve got a lot of new transfers in who look to make an impact and a returning QB who was hurt early in the season. He’s a pass-first runner (some might debate the pass-first part… but that’s at least the coaching staff’s goal for him).

Thus to sum it all up, UNLV looks to be a good 2nd opponent after UC Davis. It sets the Bears up to be 2-0 going into the tough game against Notre Dame but at the same time appears to be a better test of how Cal can perform against a “full sized” team. Minus melt-downing if the Bear lose, I’ll be looking most at how the Bears control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball (D-line was concerning last week), whether Plummer continues to improve and whether the running QB gives them any trouble.

What a Big Game!

Wow, what a joyful evening Saturday was. After the rust of 2 weeks off and lacking practice due to COVID in the 1st quarter, the Bears laid the wood to Stanford again and again and again.

If I was a furd fan (and could somehow rise above my ideocracy 🙂 ), I’d have been very angry with Shaw deciding to go for it on 4th and goal twice. The halftime score could have been 14-9 otherwise. But by the mid-3rd quarter one could actually see the wisdom in Shaw’s decision. He knew this game was a long-shot. He needed to get out in front and try to get the Bears to be one-dimensional.

Stanford is really terrible right now. While the records might be similar, the details make it clear that Cal is a much better team. Stanford keeps losing by much larger margins.

Now the question is: Can the Bears make it to bowl eligibility? And I have to say, that’s a tall order. That stinking Arizona game!?!

USC looks pretty vulnerable, so that game is for sure winnable. It’ll be even better if BYU can go into the coliseum this weekend and put an end to USC’s hope for bowl eligibility.

UCLA looks to be the tougher task. On the road. Thanksgiving weekend. Against a surging UCLA. That’s not going to be easy. Although when one does the common opponent analysis the teams look pretty even.

All the more reason to say: That stinking Arizona game!?!

OSU preview

Well, last week was nice wasn’t it? And I won’t even point out that I just about got the Cal score right. 🙂

A month ago when people looked at the schedule, OSU was the middle game of a 3 game more winnable stretch. And while Colorado was and Arizona appears to be as weak as expected, OSU has exceeded expectations with wins over USC (on the road at well), Washington and Utah. They’re only conference blemish is a 24-31 loss to WSU.

Now a common opponent analysis suggests OSU to be a better team. They beat UW when Cal lost and put up a much better score against WSU even though both teams lost. (And it’s worth noting that OSU played WSU on the road whereas Cal had the “Wougs” at home.)

As such there’s no doubt that this will not be an easy game for the Bears. I think we have to consider OSU the favorite. But what I see is a Bears team that is continuing to improve and lost a lot of close games that could have gone the other way… and they’re playing a good but average talent team that has won a number of one-score victories against teams the Bears could have beaten.

Additionally, OSU is all about their run game and that plays into the strength of the Cal defense. Their QB is young and if Cal can force OSU to pass, the ball hawking ability of the Bears (which is improving and slowly getting back to form) could shake his confidence.

So I see this game coming down to the trenches. Can the Bears slow the OSU run game? Can the Cal offensive line hold up and open up the down-field passing game? (Notable add-on issue: Will Cal’s improved tackling show up again this week?)

And when games come down to the trenches, except in the extremes, it comes down to heart. Does OSU come out strong with determination to continue their impressive season? Or do they come to Berkeley a little bit over-confident after a good stretch? Do the Bears continue to build on last week’s momentum? Or do they lose the hunger that finally got them back in the win column now that they’ve won one?

These are the questions that will determine the winner.

And I refuse to make the trip to Berkeley as a pessimist. Bears win 27-24.

Colorado preview

The fundamental question one has to ask themselves when considering the strength of Colorado is: “How bad is Arizona?” This is particularly so because the Bears and Buffs have no common opponents… which is kinda rare for conference foes this late in the season. But the one conference team Colorado beat (Arizona) has two common opponents with Cal.

So we’re going to completely abuse the transitive property today…

  • Arizona lost 41-19 @ Oregon. Cal lost a nailbiter in Autzen.
  • Arizona hosted UW and lost 21-16 in a game where UW started really flat, but once they got up to speed rolled over Arizona. Cal lost in overtime on the road.

So there’s no doubt that Cal is a lot better than Arizona when doing a common opponent analysis… but then when you look at the Colorado vs. Arizona game and see 34-0 it makes you think that Colorado is probably better than the both of them, right? And that’s bolstered by the fact that all of their losses are to pretty good teams. Texas A&M, a strong Minnesota, ASU (the class act of the conference this year), and even USC ain’t bad.

Well, not so fast.

The level of blowout of those losses should be quite concerning for those trying to sing Colorado’s praises. They didn’t just lose, they were blown out by all of them but A&M. So my gut is that Arizona is *REALLY* bad and we shouldn’t put too much stock in that blowout win over Arizona.

My thinking is that today we have two very similar teams… they have just enough talent to be dangerous, but enough holes and problems to be on the weak end of things. So in the end it’s going to come down to who wants it more. And frankly, that scare the crud out of me. I’ve seen too many games where I’m not feeling a lot of passion out of the Bears.

But I refuse to make the trip to Berkeley so pessimistically so I’m going believe that the Bears bring a strong effort today and their slight talent edge combined with home field advantage is enough to finally get Cal back in the win column.

Bears win 27-13

WSU preview

Ever since the departure Mike Leach, WSU has been headed the wrong direction. There’s no doubt that Leach gave the Wougs some recruiting credibility as well as his offensive style fit them well.

It’s not that much of a surprise then that new coach Nick Rolovich is struggling. There are already serious calls for him to be fired (see: WSU is 1-3 this year, like the Bears, but their losses were far less encouraging. Both conference losses (USC and Utah) were against teams that themselves are struggling and themselves have troublesome losses. And they haven’t been losing by single scores margins.

So there’s no getting around that this is a must-win game for the Bears if they hope to have any shot at respectability much less bowl eligibility.

I see this game coming down to whether the Cal secondary can keep the game from being a “shoot out”. I put that in quotes because I don’t mean to imply that there’s any prospect of a classic Cal-WSU 60-59 style shootout. But a game where neither team can much slow the other and an over/under of 80 perhaps being appropriate is in play.

My instinct says Cal comes out strong, WSU is already feeling the mid-season grind of a failing team and Cal wins moderately easily. The Cal secondary will have it’s struggles, but the improvements we saw in the 2nd half of the UW game will intermittently work to keep WSU in check.

Final score: Bears win 34-20.

UW Preview

(FYI, I didn’t have a lot to say about the Sac State game… although I guess I should have said something. It’s just so hard to know what to say with FCS games…)

Now that we’ve got the non-conference slate completed, I’m finally starting to feel like I might be able to say something intelligent in a pre-game prediction post. Up this weekend is UW on the road.

Usually when we think of UW, we think of a top-tier Pac-12 team led by the legendary Chris Peterson and with a string of successful quarterbacks with very quarterback sounding names like, Jake (2x), Cody and Brock.

No longer…

While the pre-season rankings (20th) suggested that UW was still a good team, their performance the first two weeks clearly showed they are *NOT* who they used to be. After humiliatingly losing to Montana at home in the first week, in the 2nd week they were physically dominated in Michigan by the Wolverines. (They only managed to rush for 50 yards on 32 carries and gave up 343 yards on the ground.)

Week 3 brings *some* of that into question as UW dominated a quite weak Arkansas State. But how weak… Sac State weak? Or far weaker?

Here’s what I see…

I think this game will come down to the following things:

  1. Will the Bears dominate in the trenches like the statistics to date would suggest. UW appears to be very weak on both sides of the line and Cal, while not dominant, has held their own.
  2. Will the Cal secondary be able to do just enough to force UW to be balanced on offense.
  3. How well will Cal tackle?

I must admit, I have pretty serious concerns about the Cal secondary. This is *NOT* the “takers” anymore. While the scheme of the Bears defense is good and it seems reasonably well coached, their inexperience really hurts them and their talent level isn’t quite it used to be.

And I’ve make my concerns about tackling pretty clear.

But, long story short, I think Cal has a real shot at this game, yet at the same time there’s a lot of risk. And frankly, I feel like we have two teams trying to do the same thing: Improve quickly after an underwhelming start to the season.

I’m going to take the optimistic route and say the Bears win a grinder: 27-20

Redbox preview

Bowl games are perhaps the hardest games to predict, with the possible exception of the first game of the season when there’s been major changes to one or both teams playing.

Here’s what history has proven to be true about bowl games:

  • Often it is more about which team is more excited about playing in that game
  • Many teams are missing multiple players due to upcoming draft preparations or, even if they play, at a minimum don’t seem to be as committed to the team as they were mid-season
  • Many teams have coaching staffs with things in transition that have more impact than people anticipate

So which of those issues apply here?

  • Cal will be missing a number of notable players: Jordan Duncan (who’s missed a lot of playing time already), Tevin Paul, Ashtyn Davis (both big impact players), as well as the usually less important but notable safeties Isaiah Humphries and Trey Turner, but now pretty critical with Davis out.
  • Cal is losing it’s offensive coordinator to Cal Poly after the game as well as the offensive line coordinator to retirement after the game.

Luckily, particularly with the game being local to the Bay Area, I think the Bears are excited to play and perhaps more than anything else, anxious to get the bad taste of last year’s Cheez-It bowl out of their mouth. Will that be enough to overcome the missing players and coaching staff distractions? That’s anyone’s guess.

As for Illinios, they appear to be a bit of an enigma. The team is clearly capable of beating good teams, beating both Wisconsin and #19 (at the time) Iowa. (Oops, misread the Iowa score. Illinois lost that one (thanks for the correction Rick). But still, the Wisconsin win suggests they have the potential to “play up”.) But they’re also capable of laying some eggs without a lot of good excuses (Eastern Michigan and Northwestern).

But they’re definitely hungry and excited to be playing in the Redbox bowl. Illinois is a year behind Cal in its turn-around. It’s their first bowl game since 2014 and even that was a one year return since their better years in the past.

And frankly that scares me. When you have team that can beat Wisconsin when they put their mind to it and they’re excited to be playing in their first bowl game in a while, with a chance to have their first winning season since 2011… that’s a formula for a team that will play well above their weight class.

And to make matters worse, I’m not sure on paper this is a very good match-up for the Bears. While Cal’s defense is notably better across the board, I’m a bit worried about Illinois power running attack, which is where Cal’s defense is at its weakest. On the other side of the ball, the Cal offense may have trouble running the ball against their defensive line. A victory for Cal will be very dependent on Garbers having a good game against a competent yet mediocre Illinois secondary.

What I would be preaching in the locker room is ball security. Illinios owes a lot of their success this season to turnover margin. To some degree that explains why they’re so inconsistent as turnovers are always a somewhat inconsistent thing, even for teams that are very good at forcing them.

So, can the Bears win this game? Absolutely! If they play well on the defensive line and let Weaver wreck havoc on the run-game, Cal can slow their run-first offense. And Cal can most definitely put up some points through the air against Illinois.

Yet at the end of the day, I feel like Illinois is going to bring a very physical game and, sadly, is going to want it more.

Bears lose: 20-24 (But here’s hoping Garbers pulls another 2-minute drill like UW and Standford to make it 27-24)

UCLA preview

Just going on record for a prediction…

I don’t see tonight going well for the following reasons:

  1. Big Game hangover (see 2009, UW game)
  2. Thanksgiving week road game (see 2017, UCLA)
  3. Rose Bowl venue is not kind to Bears for some reason (See 2017, 2015, 2013, 2011, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2001)
  4. UCLA always plays Cal tough, particularly of late (see 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2017, 2018)

If these two teams played each other in some fantasy neutral game, where it was just talent and scheme against each other, I think the Bears would have about a 60/40 shot at a win. But sometimes all the stars suggest otherwise.

Bears lose 27-17

Big Game preview

I’ll state right up front that this “preview” is more of an emotional plea instead of my normal analysis. And here’s why: I desperately desire something that uplifts my soul today. I desire something that will inspire me to renew my season tickets. I desire something that will make me feel that 40+ years of Cal football fandom has not been in vain.

And it seems like if there was ever a time when the Big Game could do that, it would be today. Stanford is the most vulnerable they’ve been since Harbaugh took the coaching job in 2007. Since that happened, Cal has only won the Big Game twice: 2008 and 2009.

The 2009 Big Game was a great moment for Cal football. Down on the farm an underdog Cal team brought the sort of effort that only can come in a rivalry game. Even when they were down 14-0 after two big Gerhart rushing touchdowns in the 1st quarter made it look like the Bears had an impossible task, they clawed their way back. And when Mohammed sealed the win with his interception with just over a minute left, it was a moment of great euphoria.

While we’re thinking back on great Big Game wins, let’s go back to another great day in Cal football: November 23rd, 2002. Stanford had won 7 Big Games in a row going into that Saturday. But for the first time in a long time there was hope that Cal could overcome so many years of Big Game frustration. People forget how much there was doubt at that moment… Cal had lost some games we thought they should have won in the weeks leading up to the Big Game. Even though Stanford was having a terrible season after the departure of Willmingham, there was the memories of recent Big Games where Cal seemed to be poised to end the streak. And what were were given that day? One of the most cathartic, joyful wins in Cal Football and Big Game history: a 30-7 start to finish drubbing of Stanford.

That’s what I desperately desire today: A win that uplifts my spirits and gives me hope. I’m not picky how it goes. It can be of the 2009 variety: A tough hard-fought close victory. And of course who could complain about something that emulates the 2002 game? I’m even open to some other sort of uplifting win. Perhaps some sort of “the Cardinal never crossed the 50” sort of defensive beat-down. But however it happens, that’s what I desire from the depths of my soul: an uplifting win that gives me faith in the Sturdy Golden Bear yet again.

Is that too much to ask? I know that it’s a rare thing when we get a moment like that. I know it’s not this teams fault that my faith is wavering. Nevertheless, this is where I, and I think a lot of other Cal fans, are this morning.

The Cardinal is vulnerable today. For the love of Oski, give me a reason to believe again. Because if the Bears lose to this weak Stanford team, how could I possibly hope that the Bears are on the right track?

Nevertheless, I place my hope in this team and what they are capable of. Please Bears, remind me again what Joe Kapp famously said after another great Big Game win:


USC Preview

I’m back!!! Sorry for the lack of posts the last few weeks. After the Oregon State game I needed a few weeks away from Cal football. That loss was SOOOO demoralizing. It was very taxing on my soul. I knew that what I needed was to get Cal football out of my mind to get some emotional distance.

Of course, having a win over WSU makes it easier to come back, but I think it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have been ready either way at this point. In fact, I might have been ready before the WSU game, but I had other commitments that kept me away. I had a critical project associated to the transit of Mercury last Monday. So despite the fact I had my season tickets, and was theoretically available to go to the WSU game, I didn’t go merely because I had a ton of work to do before the transit.

In either case, I’m back now. 🙂

Onto the preview… It’s so hard to know what to make of both the Bears and of USC. USC has been very inconsistent. Cal has been mostly horrible through all of the injuries, particularly those at QB.

So, are we going to see the USC team that beat Utah or the team that got manhandled and throttled by Oregon? The one thing you can say about USC is they’ve only lost to good teams. Oregon, Notre Dame, Washington, and BYU (OK, they’re the weakest of the 4 by far). So USC isn’t laying any eggs in the Win-Loss department, unlike our beloved Bears. So my gut says USC is going to be a much tougher win this year than last.

And then there is the fact that Chase Garbers is back for the Bears as well as a number of other injuries are clearing themselves up. Chase hasn’t lost a game all season and was looking pretty darned good before he got injured. So are we going to get a ‘where-he-left-off’ Chase or will there be some rust to shake off? And what about the rest of the returning talent that started to look reasonably good/back last week?

It all leaves a lot of question marks.

My crystal ball sees that this game will come down to the Cal defense. They have to give the offense a lot of chances to score and not need that many scores to win. I think Chase is going to be somewhat inconsistent as he shakes off the rust. He’ll have some good drives and some bad drives. I’m guessing 2 TD’s and 2 FG’s worth of good drives… but only if the defense keeps getting the offense the ball back.

But if USC did a good job watching Utah and Oregon State film, and can expose the Bear’s defensive weaknesses, which they theoretically have the talent to do, then this game could be long and frustrating. USC can play keep-away and not give the Cal offense many chances.

But I’m going to be the optimist today (cautiously so) and predict that the defense comes out fired up and wins the game for the Bears.

Cal 20, USC 16

OSU prediction

Ran out of time to do a full preview. Cal offense is better against OSU, but not as good as last year. Cal defense is stifling.

Prediction: Cal 23, OSU 6

Oregon Preview

Well, I need to eat some humble pie after last week’s HORRIBLY off prediction. I got just about everything wrong. Sure, I wrote that it was possible things could go the other way, but what I actually predicted was a clicking Cal and a fading ASU. We saw exactly the opposite.

So here’s hoping my crystal ball is still broken, because what it sees today is UGLY. I’m sure Modster will be better than what he showed us against ASU, but there’s just no getting around how big of a loss Garbers is. Garbers would have won the ASU game, I have no doubt. And he would have been the key to a functional Cal offense versus Oregon.

But things are even worse than that. Oregon is the team built to beat Cal: Physical on the offensive line. Their stats may not show it, but I still think they are a run-first team. The fact that they have a QB who can make the opposition pay for loading up against the run only makes things worse. They’re going to push around Cal’s defensive line and control the game.

On defense, they’re also stronger against the run than the pass. This would be interesting if Cal had a serviceable quarterback… sadly all signs suggest the opposite.

And then add on the intangibles: Game in Eugene. Oregon is well rested after a bye. Oregon is in the pole position in the north now and ready to prove they deserve to win the north. It feels like a statement game for Oregon.

I just can’t imagine this game going well for the Bears: Cal 10, Oregon 31

ASU Prediction

Sadly, I won’t have time to do a full preview post for this one. But I will say that ASU on the one hand scares me, but on the other hand feels much more manageable than our two tough games thus far.

The Cal injury situation with both the linebackers and the offensive line is troubling as well.

But I’m going to go the complete other way with this one. Something tells me tonight is going to be one of those games where the opponent comes in flat (demoralizing loss last week plus early Friday night game) and everything is clicking for the home team.

Cal is going to get 2 to 3 scores early and then ASU will meaningfully attempt to battle back, but will be too mistake prone against the Cal defense to get any closer.

Keeping my Old Blue in a cage for this one: Cal 38, ASU 17

Ole Miss Preview

Are you ready for some football!?!

Well, you’d better be ready with some starbucks… because it’s another 9 AM West Coast kickoff for the Bears. For us Old Blues, this will no doubt bring back flashbacks of the 2008 game versus Maryland that started at noon EDT (which is the same as 9 AM PDT) and the 25th ranked Bears didn’t seem to wake up until the 4th quarter, thus losing to what we all felt was an inferior team. (And with the subsequent beat-down of Maryland at home the following year adding credence to that line of thinking.)

But this is Wilcox’s Bears, not Tedford’s or Dyke’s version. As much as I have very positive feelings about the Tedford era, there’s no doubt that those teams would occasionally have a stinker of a game and that there was a strong correlation between those and being on the road. Dykes was even worse for inconsistency.

Not Wilcox’s Bears. If anything they’ve excelled on the road. And every week, win or lose, I always feel that the Bears come to play. Thus, I don’t think 9 AM is going to have an effect on the outcome.

As for Ole Miss, for those who don’t remember, Cal played them 2 years ago and after trailing 7 to 16 at halftime scored 13 unanswered points to take the lead. Then with 3 minutes left, the desperate Rebel QB threw a pick-6 to give Cal some breathing room (and a 27-16 victory).

I recently re-watched that game and generally what I saw was two physically equally matched teams: both Power 5 teams without elite talent pretty much across the board. There was no meaningful difference in size between the teams on the line, despite what you hear about how big SEC teams are in the trenches.

And frankly, talent wise, I don’t think much has changed from 2 years ago for either team.

But there have been some pretty significant changes based on coaching and scheme. I think we’re all familiar with what’s changed for the Bears, so I’ll focus on Ole Miss

The big change for Ole Miss is that they have a new defensive coordinator, one who is very familiar to Bears fan: Former Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre. After being fired by CU just before the Cal game last year, he got picked up by Ole Miss in the off-season. He’s changed from a 4-2-5 to a 3-4 scheme. And thus far it is having pretty good results. So much so that their defense is ranked 16th, just behind the 15th ranked Bears, in the S&P+ defensive rankings.

This is what Ole Miss fans are hanging their hats on for their chances for a win. They, like Cal fans, don’t have a lot of confidence in their offense.

But is their defense really that good? My thought is: not really. Their best result is a 10 to 15 loss to Memphis. Memphis is a pretty good Group of 5 team (and currently undefeated), so it is something that the Rebels held them to 15. But they also gave up 29 to an FCS team and 17 to the (as of last year) pretty terrible Razorbacks (they do seem to be improving this year). Overall, Ole Miss’s defense is petty untested thus far.

Also, new schemes, on either side of the ball, have a real advantage for the 1st few weeks of the season. The opponents don’t have any significant game film to work with. The element of surprise is very important in college football, thus new schemes have a short term advantage. But now it’s week 4 and Cal has 3 weeks of footage to work with.

Nevertheless, I think it’s right to think of this game as a defensive struggle. And what that means is the team that can break a few big plays will win. I’m going to go with my gut and say that team is Cal, in part because of big defensive plays.

Garbers and the offense is playing it really safe and not turning the ball over. I see that as continuing. Ole Miss is far more likely to fall victim to Cal’s confusing defense and throw a pick-6 or do something similarly as disheartening. Also, Cal’s defense is less likely to have a blown play. Ole Miss may be better with their new defensive scheme, but it’s only their 4th week of it. Mistakes are bound to happen.

So, my call is for a low scoring game where 2 extra big plays for the Bears make the difference: Cal 20, Ole Miss 13.

UC Davis preview

Watch out! This is not your father’s UC Davis. This isn’t even the team that beat Stanford in 2005. This is a top-tier FCS team, currently ranked #5 in the FCS, with a very experienced quarterback (2018 Big Sky offensive player of the year Jake Maier). Ever since Dan Hawkins (former Colorado and Boise St. Head coach) took over from Ron Gould (of Cal running back coaching fame), UC Davis has been getting better and better.

Cal could actually lose this game. *REALLY*. Not, “if the Bears don’t bring their A-game” lose, actually lose the game straight up. All it would take is a sub-par game plan and last years offensive struggles.

The good news for the Bears is I don’t think Maier has ever played a defense as good as Cal’s and most definitely never played one that so effectively uses deception. He has a pretty common weakness in that he’s mistake prone when under pressure. That bodes really well for the Cal defense.

When the Bears have the ball, I think the most important question is whether they can dominate in the trenches. If they can, I expect the Bears to play it pretty conservative and pound the ball. That might be difficult as UC Davis has a pretty good defensive line (for FCS) and it’s their most experienced unit.

But if that doesn’t work, the secondary is pretty young, so the Bears hopefully can exploit that if UC Davis commits too heavily to stopping the run.

My expectation is that we’re going to see a surprisingly good UC Davis team, but one that tries a bit too hard on offense and makes enough mistakes to turn what in principle a pretty even-handed game into somewhat easy victory.

But if Cal loses the turnover and field position battle… watch out!

Hoping that doesn’t happen: Bears 31, Aggies 17/

2019 game-by-game prediction

Before we get into 2019, it seems worth looking back on my 2018 pre-season predictions:

  • N. Carolina: Predicted 2 score win; got a 1 TD win
  • @BYU: Predicted close loss; got close win
  • ID St.: Predicted big win; got big win
  • OU: Predicted 1 score loss; got 3 score loss
  • @UA: Predicted 2 TD loss; got 1 TD loss
  • UCLA: Predicted close win; got blowout loss
  • @OSU: Predicted close win; got blowout win
  • UW: predicted 1 score loss; got 1 score win
  • @WSU: predicted 2 score win; got 1 score loss
  • @USC: Predicted blowout loss; got 1 score win
  • Stanford: Predicted 1 score win; got 2 score loss
  • Colorado: Predicted 2 score win; got 2 score win

(Colors are where I predicted wrong, green when it was a win instead of a loss, red for the opposite.)

So I got half the games right (with only a couple where the magnitude was meaningfully off) and half the games wrong, but the number of wins overall was as expected. I wouldn’t call that stellar, but it’s also not horrible for a middle of the pack team.

On to 2019…

  • Cal 31 vs. UC Davis 17 – I’ll do a separate post for this one
  • Cal 13 @ UW 17 – The only thing that gives me pause on this prediction is that UW is doing a fair amount of rebuilding this season, most notably at QB, but I don’t think UW let’s Cal win this game on their turf. They’ll be careful. They’ll try to wear our defense down. And ultimately, UW will grind out a win. Here’s hoping Garbers and the offense surprises me.
  • Cal 38 vs. N. Texas 13 – Cal starts clicking a bit more on offense and N. Texas is overwhelmed by the Cal defense. Desperation leads to a couple of “ill advised passes” that help pad the score for Cal.
  • Cal 27 @ Ole Miss 10 – Cal shuts down Ole Miss’ new offense from Rich Rodriguez (which isn’t yet up to full speed) and the offense takes advantage of a number of short fields.
  • Cal 24 vs. ASU 20 – In a game that keeps our nerves frazzled, Cal squeaks out a win when ASU can’t convert in the redzone at the end of the game (needing a TD). This game gives Cal fans more worries about the quality of the defense than it should.
  • Cal 13 @ Oregon 28 – The defense improves on it’s 2018 effort, but the inability of the Cal offense to get things going is just too much for the defense to handle
  • Cal 45 vs. OSU 17 – Garbage time scores give OSU more points than they deserve, but this is the cathartic game us fans needed after a couple of troubling weeks.
  • Cal 20 @ Utah 23 – The most painful game of the season (think last year’s WSU game) where Cal fans spend the next few days moaning about what could have been. Close the entire 2nd half, Cal can never get through and score the points it needs to win.
  • Cal 38 vs. WSU 6 – Without the Minshew magic of 2018 and yet again unable to beat the Cal defense, this time the Cal offense does it’s job and puts WSU in a hole early. Desperation only increases the margin of victory.
  • Cal 12 vs. USC 14 – Cal gets a bit too cocky and gives up a couple big scores. On the other side, the USC defense keeps Cal out of the endzone.
  • Cal 27 @ Stanford 17 – I’m getting tired of predicting “this is our year” with the Big Game… so this year the Bears are not going to let me down when I say “THIS IS OUR YEAR!!!” Stanford continues to regress as a team and is pretty disheartened (and thus under-performs) when Stanford stadium is yet again Bear Territory in the stands.
  • Cal 24 @ UCLA 31 – I’m sticking to my planned prediction despite what happened to UCLA last night. They’ll find just enough mojo at the end of the year to beat the Bears.

So, yet another 7-5 season with some new wins but also some regressions and losing to teams we beat last year (UW and USC in particular).

2019 Reasons to be concerned

It’s all well and good to focus on the positives before the season starts. God knows that we’ll have plenty of time to focus on the negatives starting tomorrow afternoon. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to properly set expectations so that when things start to not look as good as our most wildly optimistic thoughts, we’re not so surprised (or is the right word angry?).

Here are my thoughts about things to be concerned about:

  • Pick-6’s may not come so easy this year: Of the Bears 7 wins, 3 can pretty directly be attributed to pick-6’s or INTs: UW, Colorado (got a 14 point head start on 2 pick 6’s), and USC. As much as the defense deserves a lot of credit for those points, there’s an element of chance and randomness there. It wouldn’t have taken much for Cal to lose a couple of those games last year and end a disappointing 5-7. It’s not hard to imagine the team doesn’t have such good luck in that department this year.
  • Garbers improvement may not be as advertised: While there’s definitely reason for hope here, the last couple games of the season aren’t exactly a ringing endorsement for the idea that Garbers was getting better. And if he wasn’t improving over the course of the season, why are we so confident he got better over the off-season?
  • The tough games are on the road: This is the inverse of the optimistic ‘Most of the most winnable games are at home’ point. If we’re hoping for a Cal team that gets to 8-4 or better, they’re going to need to beat some pretty good teams. And most of those games are on the road: Oregon, Washington, Utah and Stanford top that list. And depending on what you think of UCLA after their loss last night, add UCLA to that list (remember that one is at the end of the season). Plus, I’d feel a lot better about Ole Miss at home and more confident about ASU if they weren’t coming home from a road trip to Ole Miss before the short week for that Friday night game.
  • The nose guard position: On the surface, it seems in good shape… Luc Bequette was one of our best defensive linemen last year. But he’s been moved from outside at end to the nose guard. The pre-fall camp hopeful starter Maldonado is injured and Fuimaono has been missing for unclear reasons. When the team’s only depth behind a player who had to be moved to that position is guys who’ve never played a snap of college football, it’s a little concerning.
  • Depth in general is a bit weak: There are some positions the team seem to have a lot of options: QB (ironically), RB, and DE are the most likely to survive injuries. But after that it gets a bit more troubling… ILB and OLB may not be too bad if you account for moving people around based on injuries, but if you just look at the depth chart, it gets thin pretty quick. The same could be said about CB and Safety. Past that, it gets pretty dicey. The offensive line, the wide receivers, and tight end as well as the previously mentioned nose guard position, could all be one injury away from being a real problem.
  • Weak offenses lead to thin margins of error: Perhaps this is a more general way to say my first point. But as we saw last year against Arizona, WSU and could imagine for UW and USC, it only takes a couple of pretty minor mistakes to turn the game the wrong way when the offense doesn’t score a lot of points. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a defense.
  • ASU and Utah are much better than UA and CU: Odd years are when Cal switches which pair of Pac-12 south teams it plays in addition to USC and UCLA. Without a doubt, both ASU and Utah are better than both UA and Colorado. And the Bears only went 1-1 against UA and CU last year. It’s going to be pretty challenging for the team to beat ASU and Utah this year.
  • Year 2 for break-out units tend to be tough: When a team has an offense that explodes, it takes a while for opponents to figure out how to defend it. But make no mistake, one of the coaching staff’s biggest jobs in the off-season is to analyze last year’s game film for ways to improve the following year. That’s why in year 2 of a newly improved unit, there’s often a step back. In our case, the unit in question in the defense. I’m sure every Pac-12 offensive coach spent a fair amount of their time pouring over Cal game film for weaknesses they might be able to exploit. Opposing QB’s now have a season’s worth of game film to review so they won’t be as surprised by the team’s creative coverage schemes. All of this brings up the very real possibility that the exact same defensive performance as last year, might not go quite as well the 2nd time around.

Do I have you sufficiently scared yet? Just in case I haven’t done my job yet, let’s walk through the season with a pessimistic outlook:

I won’t go completely doomsday and predict a UC Davis upset, but as you’ll see when I get to my game preview, they’re a lot more dangerous than many think. The same goes for N. Texas. But for sure, losing to UW is a very real possibility. So let’s say the Bears start out 2-1.

From here there’s a bunch of trouble. On the road into SEC territory, potentially early in the day? (game time is not yet set) That could easily be a loss even though it is a weaker Ole Miss. And if that happens, it’s not hard to imagine a loss to ASU after the short week for the Friday night game. And things don’t get better the following week headed to Eugene to lose to Oregon.

Thus the Bears would stumble into their bye week on a 3-game losing streak and 2-4 overall. The Bears should pick up a win against Oregon State at home after the bye.

Yet after that, there’s not a single game the Bears should feel safe about. Heading to Utah is always trouble. WSU is always a tough game and the same goes for USC. (Don’t let winning one game after 14 years of futility get to your head.) Let’s be nice and suggest the Bears win 1 of those 3.

That brings the team’s record to 4-6, needing to win both games against Stanford and UCLA. And if we were being optimists, we could hope for 2 wins to get to bowl eligibility. Sadly, this is the pessimists view and that suggests we lose to Stanford (who continues to have Cal’s numbers, year after year) and at that point, now eliminated from bowl eligibility, Cal has a tough time bringing the needed intensity to UCLA on the road on Thanksgiving weekend and drops the final game.

Final record 4-8 for the pessimistic view, with 3-9 not being completely out of the realm of possibility of you’re embracing the ‘Old Blue’ inside you.

2019 Reasons for Optimism

Another Cal season is upon us. And if you read the various Cal sites, there’s lots of reasons to be optimistic. In fact, I think a couple of weeks ago it officially crossed the threshold from optimism to delusion. But, that doesn’t mean that hiding inside the delusion aren’t some real reasons for optimism. Here’s what they are as I see them:

  • The defense should be good again: …perhaps even great. While there are a couple more concerning points (but I’ll get to those in another post) it is not unreasonable to think that the 2019 defense has the potential to match or even exceed the 2018 version.
  • Good defense leads to close games: Last year Cal gave up more than 24 points only twice: Oregon and UCLA. And wouldn’t you know it, those were the only two games Cal fans walked away dejected. Why? Because even if you’re offense is inept (there, I said it, OK?) it doesn’t take but a couple of lucky breaks to score a couple touchdowns. And once the team has done that, you’re always in striking distance of a last second win.
  • The QB situation should be better: There’s no getting around that last year was rough at QB. The presumptive 2nd year starter (Bowers) for whatever reason was quickly on the sideline leaving us with two untested QB’s fighting it out. One was potentially explosive, but as it turned out, also frequently disastrous. The other was steady but a bit uninspiring at times. Mr. Steady is back for season #2. Now he’s got 2/3rds of a season of experience under his belt plus a full off-season as the presumptive starter. One has to expect Garbers to be better in 2019.
  • There’s a lot more talent at WR: (Note the word “more”… particularly when compared to the late season injury plagued unit that is most fresh in our minds). There’s a lot of youth in this group, but youth has rarely been a huge problem at WR. It’s more about talent and work ethic. Between the set of backups from last year who might be ready to contribute and the freshmen and transfers, there should be enough speed and talent here to keep opposing defenses more honest than 2018. That’ll help the run game too.
  • Most of the most winnable games are at home: This can be a tough one because it can be said in both a positive and negative way, but I’ll save the negative way for another post. The positive way to say it that if you have the easy games at home, the floor for the team is higher. In other words, if all the supposed easy games are on the road, the team (in the worst case scenario) is a lot more likely to be at risk of a 2-win season. Said another way, it’s much easier to lose teams that the team shouldn’t lose to on the road. By having those teams at home, the floor is higher. There’s 3 nearly guaranteed wins at home (UC-Davis, N. Texas and Oregon State) and another 3 that are very winnable (WSU, USC and ASU). Win those games and Cal goes bowling even if they strike out on the road.
  • Year 3 of programs tend to be the break out year: If you look at most programs that are on a building trend, year 3 is where it most frequently comes together. Last year the defense got there a bit ahead of schedule. But we’ve reached the point where Wilcox and staff have a team that is mostly of their making and they’ve had a chance to fully put in place what they want to do.

So what does my optimistic scenario look like? I think this team could open the season 5-0. UC Davis, a rebuilding UW, N. Texas, a weaker than normal Ole Miss, and ASU at home. There’s no reason to think (when being optimistic) that the Bears couldn’t win all those games.

At that point, yet again we’ll get ESPN GameDay, but yet again it will be on the road, for the Oregon game. I think we’re in delusion mode if we think Cal wins that game. Sure, crazy things happen, but I’d like my optimism to have at least some semblance of reality.

The final 6 games have 3 that really concern me (@Utah, @Stanford and @UCLA) and 2 that I think are reasonably winnable (WSU and USC) and one that should be a win (OSU). Because things are never as ‘by the book’ as we’d think, my realistic optimistic prediction is they win one of those 3 scary ones, but also lose 1 of the pretty winnable ones.

The result is optimism points to an 8-4 team, with an upside to 9-3 and if you squint just the right way, 10-2 isn’t inconceivable. Anything beyond that (well probably even the 10-2 should be included) is pretty delusional.

Cheez-It Bowl preview

Just a quick one with the game starting shortly…

I think TCU is a bit turnover prone and with a young QB (3rd start I think), interceptions will be the difference.  But otherwise, it’ll be a defensive struggle with few points scored.  The key to victory is who makes the fewest mistakes and at a 2nd level, who turns those few possessions that get down the field into a TD or two, versus who is stuck with field-goals.

Bears win 13 to 6.

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.)