It’s been a long time since I’ve not had a clear opinion of what was going to happen on game day. I mean, sometimes I would think “if X happens, the Bears will win, otherwise they lose” so I’d be uncomfortable making an uncaveated prediction, but not since the day Tedford took over have I been so unsure of what to expect.
And that’s the key phrase: ‘since the day Tedford took over’
New coaches are the biggest wildcard in all of college football. It doesn’t matter if they did really well at a previous school. It doesn’t matter if they have experience in your own conference. It doesn’t matter if they are an internal promotion from a coordinator position. It doesn’t matter how talented or experienced the team he takes over is. No matter what, it’s always a wildcard when a new regime takes over. Sometimes internal promotions work out great (Shaw, Kelly) sometimes they don’t (Holmoe). Sometimes external promotions work out great (Tedford (at first)), sometimes the Peter principle comes into play. Sometimes getting them from the NFL works great (Pete Carroll), sometimes not so much (Kiffin). Sometimes grabbing from a lower tier school is great (Harbaugh, Urban Meyer (from Utah)), but that Peter principle is always lurking (just about every coach who left Boise State). Even lateral transfers have their perils (Willmingham to Notre Dame).
If that weren’t challenging enough, the Bears also have the second biggest wildcard: a young team. While generally speaking, a young team is considered a bad thing, history is not as clear, particularly with a highly recruited one, and we see this in some of the language/questions used. The most notable example is “rebuild or reload?”, an implicit admission that not all young teams are bad. Or there’s the concept of the “sophomore slump” when a QB has a great freshman season but can’t duplicate it in his sophomore year.
All of this is a long way of saying that this is a very difficult game to predict. That aside, I will now bravely wade into these uncharted waters:
Starting with Northwestern, I don’t think this team is as good as their #22 ranking nor their 10-3 2012 record indicates. Last year was a very easy year for them. Their 4-game non-conference match-ups were full of weaker teams and the most marque name, Boston College, had a very weak year. I guess one shouldn’t overlook that both Syracuse and Vanderbuilt were better than their traditional positions last year, but still, they were no juggernauts. When one looks at the conference slate, they missed two of the three best teams from the other division (Ohio State and Wisconsin), and didn’t beat anyone in the conference with a better conference record than 3-5. The best thing about their conference record, frankly, is that they took Michigan to overtime, and played a nail biter with Nebraska, despite losing them both.
In addition, a big part of what made Northwestern’s success is that they’re ahead of the curve in the Big-10 in going away from a power-run offense. It made them more difficult to defend in the big, corn-fed linemen conference that is the Big-10. Yet while being ahead of the curve in the Big-10 is a bonus for them back home, over here in the Pac-12, their offense is pretty run of the mill. Said another way, there’s nothing that Northwestern will throw at Cal that they haven’t seen before.
Thus there’s no reason to believe that Cal can’t beat Northwestern. If this was the 2011 Bears or the 2008-2009 Bears, I’d easily be predicting a victory.
That said, my gut says that the combination of such and young team and a new scheme is going to be a real challenge in the first game. This isn’t week 2 or 3, it’s week 1. The team grows more between weeks 1 and 2 than during any other week of the year, doubly so for young teams. So even if it was just a case of a young Cal team playing a familiar scheme versus an experienced Northwestern, I would have my concerns. But when one adds on the new scheme, on BOTH sides of the ball, in week 1, I just find it too hard to ignore.
All of that is a long way of saying that I’m going to go against the grain of both Cal fans and of the pundits I usually read (including Ted Miller, who has DOOOOOMED us by picking us to win), and say that Cal comes out on the losing end of this one. It’ll be entertaining. It’ll be encouraging. It’ll be a breath of fresh air. We’ll ultimately feel good about the future and see the potential. But a handful of defensive mistakes that results in big plays, too many drives where the offense can’t get in rhythm and perhaps an extra turnover or two that young teams are known for doom the Bears in this one.
Final score: Cal 33, Northwestern 42