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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.)

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:

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 further 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