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Revisiting Life on the Margins: Did Cal Improve?

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With twelve games worth of data, we can now look back and see exactly how much the Bears changed from 2014 to 2015, and what will be focal points for 2016.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Way back before the season began, I asked what Cal needed to do to avoid 'Life on the Margins,' the fate that befalls teams not good enough to consistently earn blowout wins. In 2014, the Bears played seven games that ended with a margin of victory of a single possession, i.e. 8 points or less. In 2015? That number fell just slightly to six games decided by one possession. Not really much of a difference, but it's also hard to deny that the Bears did improve.

Let's look back at the specific areas identified for potential improvement, and grade how much better the Bears got:

1. Go from good to elite on offense

I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that Cal's offense was undeniably better in 2015. I won't deny that the offense was the source of frustration this year, in part because expectations were sky high, but it's true that the Bear Raid improved. Here are some numbers:

2014 2015
FEI+ 34 25
S&P+ 30 18
Yards/Play vs. FBS teams 6.0 (37) 6.8 (11)
FEI+ Strength of Schedule 35 14
S&P+ Strength of Schedule 57 43


The bad news is that the offense didn't quite raise itself up to the level of 'elite,' at least based on how I would define it. I consider an elite offense to be a top 10 offense. Cal improved from roughly the 30th best offense in the country to roughly the 20th best offense in the country, and finished firmly with the 4th best offense in the Pac-12 after Oregon, Stanford and USC. It was an offense that, compared to 2014, was slightly more productive against a slightly tougher schedule.

Most frustratingly, Cal's offensive improvement didn't fully translate where it actually matters: on the scoreboard. The Bears finished 36th in the country in points/game vs. FBS opponents and 7th in the Pac-12 in points/game vs. conference opponents. You will also note that Cal's points/game vs. FBS teams declined from last year (36.7 to 33.2) but that's a consequence of playing slower - Cal scored more points/drive in 2015, improving from 2.57 to 2.59. Still, that's just more proof that an improved ability to gain yards and first downs didn't translate into meaningfully more points.

Why didn't Cal score more? I can think of two major reasons. The first reason is that Cal's touchdown percentage in the red zone declined from 72% to 65% as the Bears increasingly settled for field goals. The second reason will be discussed below.

Still, from the context of a rebuilding program, it's good to see the offense take another step forward. Your confidence for next season will very much depend on how much you think the Bears rely on Jared Goff to make things work, and whether or not he sticks around for another season.

Grade: B-

2. Improve special teams, particularly coverage units

Oof. Ranking special teams play can be challenging because there inherently aren't a ton of plays, and extreme events can have an outsized impact on the stats. Nevertheless, here's what we've got (all stats below are based upon FEI special teams, to my knowledge the only advanced stat for special teams):

Field Goal Eff. Punt Return Eff. Kick Return Eff. Punt Eff. Kickoff Eff.
2014 National Rank

72

27

24

95

82

2015 National Rank

52

49

79

75

112


Cal got a little bit better kicking field goals (hooray Matt Anderson!) and covering punts (hooray trick pooch punting!*) and worse at everything else. Add it all up and Cal's special teams unit ranked 83 in total efficiency. And that's how you play an entire season with bad field position.

Believe it or not, the above was good enough for 7th in the Pac-12 - as it turns out the Pac has lots of bad special teams units, and a clear divide between the haves (Stanford, Utah, Washington, Arizona, Oregon, UCLA) and the have-nots (Cal, USC, ASU, Colorado, WSU, OSU). There are a few counter-intuitive teams on each list, but in general you can tell which side you'd rather be on.

If you're looking for another measure of special teams play, you can also look at FEI's game splits, which parse out the final score to a game and gives each unit a point value based on how much it impacted the final score. Cal's offense usually has a positive number, Cal's defense usually has a negative number, and Cal's special teams also usually has a negative number. Specifically, Cal's special teams were outperformed in nearly every game despite having a good kicker.

In case you haven't guessed already, this is the second reason Cal's offense didn't translate yards into points. Cal was consistently operating with bad field position, which meant that touchdown drives had to cover long distances without mistakes. To take just one obvious example, Cal had three drives of 64 yards or longer in the Big Game that resulted in field goals. If Cal is starting those drives at the 36 yard line rather than the 18, maybe things finish different.**

The bottom line is that Cal's special teams unit regressed in terms of actual, cumulative on-field results. That's concerning considering the increased depth and experience across the entire roster, and the unit will get plenty of scrutiny entering 2016.

*Pooch punting was a great move this year, but it only works as a strategy when 1) your quarterback is capable of a decent punt and 2) your offense is scary enough that defenses won't send a safety back to receive the kick. Will those two criteria be true next year? I'd really prefer that Cal develop a good punter with a capable coverage team.

**Also, allow me to beat the deadest of horses: more 4th down conversion attempts please!

Grade: D-

3. Develop ANY semblance of a pass rush

Here's where our exercise gets complicated. It was a Jekyll and Hyde season for the Cal pass rush. Let's start with the macro view. Cal increased their sack total from 16 to 27, and their sack rate (pass attempts faced/sacks) from 2.9% to 6.5%. Hell, you can tell how much Cal's pass rush/pass defense has improved based on this stat: Cal faced 414 QB drop backs this year compared to 560 the year prior, when every offensive coordinator knew they could call a passing play with essentially zero risk. On the whole, Cal upgraded from effectively having no pass defense to having a garden variety bad pass defense.

However! There's a telling divide in Cal's pass rush stats. Cal collected 22 sacks in their 7 wins (about 3 sacks/game) and 5 sacks in their 5 losses (1/game, obviously). I think we can all agree that it's no coincidence that Cal's defense was much more successful when they were more disruptive, which was earlier in the season.

How much of the decline was because the schedule got better, and how much of the decline was because of injuries along the defensive line? I'm inclined to weight the improved schedule higher, but clearly both had an impact.

The good news is that Cal had the chance to play a ton of guys along the line. By my count 12 different dudes received playing time on the line. The bad news is that seven defensive linemen are graduating, including Kyle Kragen (6 sacks) and Todd Barr (4 sacks). In total, 15 of Cal's 27 sacks this season came from seniors. There should be depth on the line, but it will be depth without a proven ability to disrupt Pac-12 offensive lines.

Grade: C

Conclusions and looking to 2016

We mapped out three areas Cal could improve upon to take a big step forward. Cal received marginal improvements in two of the three areas, and as a result took a small step forward, from five wins to seven wins (and maybe eight). It's a cumulative result that is both encouraging without being particularly comforting.

It's encouraging because, generally speaking, Cal's coaching staff has proven that they can coach up players and improve performance over time. Cal's offense and defense have improved each season. Next season, we will find out if they can reload after productive players leave the program.

Among other productive seniors, Cal will be losing Bryce Treggs, Darius White, Jalen Jefferson, Trevor Davis, Darius Powe, Jonathan Johnson, Kyle Kragen, Stefan McClure, Jordan Rigsbee, and Mustafa Jalil. Jared Goff is probably leaving as well. Those players were the major driving force of the improvements we noted above.

I'm confident that Cal's offensive coaching staff can keep the ball moving. The line should be a veteran, productive line, and skill position recruiting has been more than encouraging. But it's entirely possible that the offense could be very good and still take a step back.

For Cal to improve, the onus will likely rest upon defense and special teams. With four defensive starters and another five contributing back-ups graduating, there will be plenty of pressure on younger players to step in and be at least as productive as the veterans that are leaving.