Holiday Bowl Preview: Special Teams

This is part 1 of a multi-part preview of Cal's Holiday Bowl matchup with Texas. How many parts? AS MANY AS WE DECIDE!

Cal's special teams are awful, right? They've been below average for years, and it hasn't seemed much different this year, has it? Well, that depends on which special teams units you're looking at. We haven't talked about special teams much this year - so would it surprise you to learn that, taken as a whole, Cal's special teams are entirely average, neither bad nor good?

Yep. According to Football Outsider's FEI rankings system, Cal has a special teams efficiency of -.021, 63rd in the country. For those unfamiliar with FEI, the rating system measures the positive and negative value of every meaningful play, ending with a single number scaled around zero. Positive numbers are good, negative numbers are bad. Cal's special teams efficiency is almost exactly zero.

So. Meh, I guess? For those under the impression that Cal's special teams are usually a liability, the news that Cal is merely mediocre might be of some comfort. Unfortunately, the bad news is that Texas actually has a pretty good special teams unit, ranked 10th in the country in FEI.

Of course, if that scares you it might be worth pointing out that compared to the impacts of offense and defense, special teams has a relatively small impact. For example, LSU's total F+ score is 38.1, of which special teams makes up just +3.5, which is still good for 3rd in the country. But if you ask Alabama fans about LSU's special teams advantage you might get some passionate opinions about how important it might be.

Let's go a little deeper into each segment of special teams after the jump:

Special Team Eff. STE Rank Field Goal Eff. FGE Rank Punt Return Eff. PRE Rank Kick Return Eff. KRE Rank Punt Eff. PE Rank Kickoff Eff. KE Rank
California -.021 63 .380 15 -.147 93 -.263 112 -.272 12 -.019 76
Texas 2.343 10 .454 9 .002 37 .103 14 -.111 43 -.129 48

On the Cal side of things, the stats say exactly what most Cal fans would expect - the Bears are pretty good at making field goals, even better at punting the ball, but pretty not great at returning kicks. The good and the bad cancel each other out and you're left with a mediocre unit. Obviously, it's not our chief concern right now but you'd be justified in worrying that there are basically two players providing clear positive value on special teams this year: Bryan Anger and Giorgio Tavecchio. Two seniors. Special teams is something to worry about for 2012.

Let's go unit by unit to see how Cal and Texas shape up:

Placekickers

The Longhorns have an excellent field goal kicker in senior Justin Tucker who is basically identical to Giorgio except he's perfect on extra points so far this year - so basically, they have Giorgio but their line doesn't allow kick blocks. The good news is that Texas hasn't blocked a field goal or extra point - yet.

Field Goal/PAT kicking advantage: EVEN

When Cal is kicking off

The Bears have an average kick coverage team - Giorgio's kick depth and hangtime are consistently mediocre, and while the Bears seem to frequently allow decent returns, the longest return they have allowed is 'just' 53 yards, so it's not like opponents are frequently starting in Cal territory or something.

Texas has three returners who all have averages in the range of 20 yards/return, but they really miss the abilities of running back Fozzy Whittaker, who had two touchdowns in just 10 returns before suffering a season ending injury against Missouri.

Advantage: Slightly to Texas

When Texas is kicking off

Simply put, Cal hasn't been getting any help from their kickoff returners. Other than one touchdown against Presbyterian I don't really recall the Bears ever starting drives beyond the 35 yard line or so, and even that far out is rare.

Justin Tucker sends the ball about 4 yards longer than Giorgio does, and as a result he has 12 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. But opponents do have a solid average return and a touchdown against the Longhorns this year. Unfortunately the Bears don't appear to be in any position to take advantage of the weakest link in Texas' special teams.

Advantage: Texas

When Cal is punting

Bryan Anger averages 44.6 yards/punt. That's good. Opponents have only returned 16 of his punts, with a long return of 18 - that's even better. Long punts and hangtime means it doesn't matter how good the punt returner is - he won't have a chance.

Well, Texas does have a pretty good punt returner. Jaxon Shipley started the season at punt returner, but freshman corner back Quandre Diggs has taken over the role and excelled. Diggs has only returned 8 punts but he's averaging 22.6 yards/return. Those are scary numbers, and if we had a weaker punter I'd be worried. ANGER SMASH hangtime gives Cal the advantage over any punt returner, especially now that we've apparently abandoned our experiments with the rugby punt.

Advantage: Cal

When Texas is punting

Kicker Justin Tucker is doing double duty as the punter as well, and while his average yards/kick is an unimpressive 39.2, he's forced a decent amount of fair catches and has kept returners in check. That tells you that either Texas has good kick coverage or Tucker focuses on hangtime - or both.

In either case, Marvin Jones hasn't had many opportunities to impress as a punt returner, and the Bears haven't done much all year. Don't expect that to change.

Advantage: Slightly to Texas

Conclusions

Without Whittaker returning kickoffs and with Anger hopefully neutralizing Diggs, I wouldn't expect special teams to have a huge factor on deciding this game, at least in the obvious ways that make fans pull their hair out. Both teams have reliable specialists and there aren't any reasons to expect huge swings on blocked kicks or punts. Texas should win the field position battle on kickoffs but Cal should do better on punts, which might be just as well since Texas has a great defense (lots of punts) and a bad offense (not many kickoffs).

Keys to the game:

-Anger hangtime leading to many fair catches.
-Cal getting anything from the return game.
-BLOCK ON PATs FOR GOD'S SAKE!

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