So I woke up this morning and, as part of my Monday morning routine, I clicked my way over to the college football betting spreads for the week. USC -17.5 over Cal -- that's funny, not unexpected or undeserved.. but funny.
I think this is Cal's best chance to beat USC since 2003, and Cal's best chance to beat USC @ the Coliseum. Here's why:
1.) Tedford knows how to scheme against USC and play USC close, and this might just be the year to beat them. Last two trips to USC were both VERY close games, and last year’s game @ Cal was decided at the very end (by a Longshore pick).
2.) Honestly, I can’t say Cal has really played a full game well yet this season. Yet we still continue to find ways to win. To quote HydroTech from his post about Oregon @ Cal:
So I'll be honest. I wasn't expecting to win today. I was thinking Cal had a 33% chance of winning. Today's game surprised me - pleasantly. Perhaps it's because we had 5 turnovers but still won. Perhaps it's because if you ignore Best's one long run (which he fumbled on), he only averaged 3 yards a carry and yet we still won. Perhaps it's because if you ignore Vereen's longest run of the day, he only averaged 2 yards a carry and yet we still won. Perhaps it's because Tedford has been saying how crucial Riley would be to counter Oregon's fierce pass rush and when Riley was knocked out of the game we still won. Perhaps it's because despite 7/19 3rd down conversation rate, we still won. Perhaps it's because we had a bobbled FG hold and some disappointing punts yet we still won. And for about 10 minutes in the 3rd quarter, I was convinced we were going to lose as Oregon gashed us for 200 yards in like 5 minutes yet we still won.
It seems like we made errors left and right - yet we still won.
When most people make so many errors and still win, they probably smile at the insane amount of luck they were blessed with. But I feel like today, despite all the errors, we won because the team willed the win with hard tough solid play despite the conditions.
It’s true. Cal really didn’t play that well against Oregon, and honestly, none of the Cal games so far were particularly impressive. So the question is, are we really that bad or do you think we’re underperforming? I think it’s the latter. We have a lot of skill players who’ve had pretty good games separately (Best plays well, receivers and QB suck; Receivers a little better, running game sucks), but they have yet to have a full, well-played game together. If we can play a full game, I think we really have a good chance – a breakout game for Riley or Best? Our receivers are getting better every week – a breakout game by one of them? Longshore’s last chance at USC – maybe he’ll return to old form? He’s looked gradually better each week, and to defend the supposedly "immobile, error-prone Nate", he’s been sacked 3 times compared to Riley’s 10 times, and he only has 1 more pick than Riley. All across the board, their numbers are practically identical so far this season:
3.) Our defense is much more dominant than the numbers represent. We stopped Javon Ringer against Michigan State, we held Oregon and Arizona St. (despite being known as high-powered offenses) to relatively low scores. Oregon rushed well against us only on their two scoring drives in the whole game, but otherwise, we effectively stopped their run and our secondary covered their receivers pretty well. College football analysts are all high on USC's defense because of their 3 shut-outs, but two of them were against Washington and Washington State, a combined win of 1 game between the two teams. USC’s shutout of Arizona State was impressive, but that was Arizona State coming off a three game losing streak with an injured Rudy Carpenter (who we injured with tough defense + sacks). Also, we have the most interceptions in the Pac-10 right now (17, USC is second with 12). Mark Sanchez has 7 interceptions this season – we can force more out of him.
By the same token, USC's offense is not nearly as good as it has been in year's past. Sanchez is extremely error-prone, and he tries to force "big plays" much too often. Our 3-4 defensive setup and secondary will put some of his riskier throws to the test.
4.) Well, I’ve always said College Football is 75% emotional/psychological. Why do you think Cal always chokes when there's too much pressure and lofty expectations? And not even just Cal, why do you think it's so difficult to go undefeated in a college football season and why does the early number 1 team always seem to get upset at least once? Why does home-field advantage in College Football seem to be more significant than in any other sport? Because at the end of the day, these are all kids! And a team's mindset going into a game is more important a factor than any.
Do I think it's likely that Cal will beat USC? Of course not – do I rule it out? Nope. But, this year’s Cal’s team is pretty different than most other teams in the Tedford Era. Coming into the season, expectations for this team were very low. People picked Cal to finish 4th in the Pac-10, and a lot of Bear fans said they’d be happy with (and expected) an 8-4 season.
And to our surprise, we're sitting atop the Pac-10 with the Trojans and the Beavers. And, like it has been every year for the past decade or so, the road to the Rose Bowl goes through USC.
Expectations have never been lower for the Bears, and we all know the Bears have cracked under pressure every time under Tedford. If we play like we have nothing to lose, I think we might just have a chance. USC is probably feeling pretty high and mighty coming into this game, having notched 5 relatively easy victories in a row. One of the USC players was even interviewed and he said he thought the Pac-10 was "surprisingly weak." Last time they probably felt this good about themselves was probably after they handily defeated Ohio State this season and secured their number 1 ranking.
And the very next game at Oregon State, they came in flat for the first half and they were never able to recover. Let's see if history can repeat itself.
and to address some of the comments made in response:
On paper, we will lose this game... but that’s why the game is played on the field. Many have mentioned that this can’t possibly be our BEST chance! I mean, last year was our prolific offense (minus Longshore’s interceptions…), in 2006 we were up at the half and never got going in the second half, ditto in 2004 and 2002, and what do we have this season? An inconsistent offense at best?
That’s why the core of my analysis is not spent saying that, on paper, we will win – because we don’t. We lose… and we have been losing for the last 6 years. What I am saying, though, is:
(1) USC is not as invincible as they are made out to be. And more importantly, we are close ENOUGH in our defensive-offensive match-ups to be able to stick with the Trojans for four quarters and make the game close. This sets up my major, and more important, premise that:
(2) From a psychological perspective, I like where we’re at more than any other year. USC has enormous pressure to “prove” something, and I think we can all agree that they aren’t going into this game truly expecting it to be close (despite what they say). They’re playing cocky, and most importantly, they’re playing overzealously. Now look at us: we really have nothing to lose. Nobody expects us to win, there’s not nearly as much hype surrounding this game as their usually is, and most importantly, there is room for us to take high risk, high reward propositions.
Perhaps the reason we weren’t able to seal the deal in 02, 04, 06, and even 07 is that we just played too scared – we played and called plays as they would’ve been called by the book and “on paper,” and unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough to beat the Trojans. Maybe this time we’ll leave it all on the field.