Upsets are apart of College Football, yet Cal has suffered more than its share of upset losses over the past few years. If Cal hopes to claim its first Pac-10 crown in 50 years, they must prevent any upset losses. According to the pre-season media poll this years 2nd tier consists of Arizona, Arizona St. UCLA and Stanford.
Of the second tier, who is Cal most likely to lose to?
Quick note: Oregon St. is currently ranked in the preseason Top 25, a loss to Oregon St would not be considered an upset. Since Stanford is a rivalry game, and rivalry games tend to field more emotional teams and upsets, I did not include Stanford.
I reviewed the stats for Oregon St. '05, Arizona '06, UCLA '07, and Arizona '08. Some common themes that developed were obvious but nonetheless worthwhile to restate:
1) Cal averaged 97.75 less rushing yards per game.
2) Cal averaged 3.5 turn-overs in each game.
3) Cal allowed one 40+ yard special teams return in each game.
4) Three of the four losses were on the road and on grass.
Looking at these four conditions, a team equipped with a good run defense, an opportunistic defense, and a dynamic returner pose the greatest risk. Who out of Arizona, Arizona St. and UCLA is most able to fulfill these conditions?
Condition 1: UA's defense last year finished 24th in total defense, and 39th in rush defense at 131 ypg. Arizona returns 7 starters and possesses a deep and experienced defensive line, plus a highly regarded secondary. The touted corners may allow Arizona the freedom to overload the box, thus stalling the Cal running game. Check
Condition 2: Last year Arizona was slightly above average in total take aways, finishing the season with 25 (43rd nationally). Devin Ross is considered an all-pac-10 talent at corner and Trevin Wade had four interceptions in back-up duty last year as a freshman. This year I believe there will be slight improvement, and the Wildcats will finish in the 25-30 zone nationally. Check
Condition 3: Mike Thomas was a dynamic return man last year, but he has since moved on. His replacements (by committee) have limited experience, and will not be as explosive and dynamic as Thomas. Fail
Condition 4: Arizona plays @ Cal on November 14. The week prior to Cal they play Washington St. Fail
Condition 1: Arizona St. had a solid but not great defense last year and returns six of their starters. This year the Sun Devils are expecting great things. Their defensive line is being heralded as one of the best in the Pac-10 and possibly the country. Dennis Erickson has upgraded the speed at linebacker dramatically, and if Burficit is academically eligible (seriously, how bad due to you have to suck at school to not get accepted by ASU?) the linebacking core will be dangerous and fast. Last year Arizona St. was 35th in rushing defense with 126.5 ypg and 3.5 yards per carry. The front seven of ASU seems destined to improve these numbers and might be able to disrupt the o-line keeping Jahvid & Shane in check. Check
Condition 2: Arizona St had 23 take aways last year. This year Dexter Davis will be one of the premiere pass rushers in the conference, last year he ranked in the top 10 nationally for total sacks, and also forced 8 fumbles. Linebacker Mike Nixon actually lead the Pac-10 in interceptions last year. Even with a weak secondary this defense has the potential to generate turnovers, and capitalize on mistakes and bad luck. Check
Condition 3: Kyle Williams lead the Pac-10 in punt returns for almost all of last year, averaging 17 yards per return, and should be considered a serious threat in the return game (Desean Jackson's career average is 16.7). Check
Condition 4: Arizona St. hosts Cal on October 31. The week before they play at Stanford. Check
Condition 1: The defense's biggest problem last year was the offense. A talented and effective defense was consistently overworked and placed in bad situations. Brian Price is a beast at defensive tackle, Reggie Carter is all over the preseason watchlists at linebacker, and Alterraun Verner is extremely talented and beat out Syd for most passes defended in the Pac-10 last year. Last year in Berkeley the defense did a good job of bottling up the Cal offense, until a trick play and a defensive score for Cal opened up the game late. Furthermore, the team speed on UCLA is excellent, which should aide in slowing Best and Vereen. Check
Condition 2: Price and the d-line is able to pressure Cal's quarterback into quick decisions. If they are bad decisions Verner and the rest of the db's should have the speed to capitalize on them. The linebackers are fast, though I am unclear how capable they are of producing fumbles. I would assume with their speed, they will be around the ball more, so if it does come loose their chances are greater that they will recover. Combine average fumble production with above average interception, and it is safe to say UCLA has the potential to force multiple turnovers in one game. Check
Condition 3: I don't know if he will redshirt this year, but freshman recruit Randall Carroll has Best's speed. Best's famed 100 time was 10.31 seconds, Carroll's is 10.30. That kind of speed is difficult to match, and if the defender takes one wrong step, or slightly misjudge the angle, Carroll can punish the defender. Check
Condition 4: UCLA. hosts Cal on October 17, a week after they host Oregon. Check
Restating the schedules, we will be playing at Arizona St. and UCLA. Both Arizona St and UCLA play on grass, and Cal has typically struggled in the deserts of L.A. and Arizona (one win in Zona in 2004, and zero wins in L.A.)
Bye Weeks: In '07 I felt it was an understated disadvantage that Cal played games on consecutive weeks against teams that had byes prior, thus a preparation advantage for the opponent (UCLA and Arizona St). This year Cal will be playing only one team that had a bye the previous week, that team is Washington St, who we play in Berkeley. As for the Golden Bears, we have our bye week prior to the UCLA game, however the last two years we have suffered losses following the bye weeks (Oregon St & Arizona).
Team Psyche: Obviously it is complete speculation when evaluating a team psyche, but I'm going to try. Cal's two biggest games happen consecutively in late September and early October, following these games Cal has a bye, then UCLA. Prior to Arizona St, Cal plays at UCLA then vrs. Washington St. The Arizona match-up is preceeded by Arizona St and a home game with Oregon St. Which of these scenarios is most likely to provide an emotional let down? It is easy to imagine Cal lacking emotional intensity after Oregon and USC regardless of the outcome of those games. I think the bye only helps us if we have nagging injuries, otherwise I fear a drop in physicality following the USC game. Against Arizona St. we will be mid-season and playing for Pac-10 position, Oregon St. is a good team, but not good enough to overshadow the Arizona St game, I doubt an emotional let down is imminent. Arizona on the other hand happens late in the season after all the top tier opponents, and just before the Big Game. Arizona also has a tendency for upsets in November, but generally they happen at home, not on the road. Being at home, an emotional let down is less likely. Guessing the likelihood of an emotional let down I would rate UCLA as the prime candidate, with the Arizona schools being tied.
In Conclusion: I think Cal is most suscpetible to an upset vrs UCLA. UCLA has the personnel to slow down the Cal running game, and playmakers able to generate turnovers. They also have a potential big play return man. Cal plays UCLA on the road, where they have never won, on grass where they play worse, following a bye week, which they've lost after twice in the past two years, and with the likelihood of an emotional let down following the big games of Oregon and USC. As always, I am nervous but optomistic about our chances.
What do you think? Any other factors we should be concerned about? Any problems with my reasoning? Should we consider Washington?