If you're familiar with the history between Cal and Texas football, you know that the Bears are far from golden when matched up with the Longhorns. In our first meeting in 1959, Texas opened up a can of whoop-ass and still hasn't closed it, thrashing us about with sadistic enthusiasm on four separate occasions. Our most recent beating from the burnt orange bully was on December 28th in the 2011 Holiday Bowl. It seems like the loss set the tone for the New Year - and the next, and the one after that too - because the Bears haven't seen to a bowl game since. However, it looks like the Bears are finally coming out of hibernation and are hungry for some sweet revenge.
Let's break it down.
Defense: We Can Only Get Better...Right?
The Bears have only scored a total of 28 points in five meetings with Texas and 10 of those points came in the Holiday Bowl. The Longhorns have a history of being exceptional on the defensive side of the ball, and this year is no different.
The Texas defensive unit ended the 2014 season 26th overall, mostly due to a fantastic pass defense ranked 11th in the nation. It was especially effective outside of the Big 12, allowing only 582 total passing yards over 4 games. The combination of a ferocious pass rush and a hard-hitting secondary makes for an aerial defense on par with the Death Star - but even moon-sized battle stations have weak spots.
The 2015 NFL draft class has left several holes in the Longhorn secondary including those formerly filled by linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Mykkele Thompson. According to a statement given by head coach Charlie Strong, the Texas secondary should maintain most of its 2014 strength. It might be a pile of Longhorn bull, but it doesn't hurt to overestimate a squad that recorded 15 interceptions last season and allowed only 183 passing yards per game. On top of that, Texas boasts a nasty pass rush that earned 40 sacks compared to our measly 16. Run for your life, Jared.
In direct contrast, the Bears defense was ranked 120th in the nation. Our rush defense was actually good enough to be ranked 36th, allowing only an average of 144.6 rushing yards per game, but that only serves to further emphasize the agonizing fact that we suck at stopping teams in the air. Cal's pass defense was dead last in the entire league, allowing over 360 passing yards per game and the most yards in a single season in FBS history. You would think we'd be better considering our guys practice against one of the best passing offenses in Cal history. Maybe it works like pitchers and batting averages. I'm on bended knee praying that Art Kaufman has turned our boys to men, because it's the end of the road if our defense doesn't show up.
Offense: I Have No Idea What I'm Doing
If you've ever taken a Rorschach test, you've been asked to state what you see when staring at a black blotchy image. You might have seen a butterfly or a downward facing dog, but one thing remains true...you're staring at a blotch of black ink on a sheet of white paper. What does this have to do with the Longhorns? While I can attempt to predict exactly what the Texas offense will look like this season, one thing is black and white: the Longhorns are a lot less scary with the ball than without it.
After David Ash went down in Texas' first game last season, the Longhorns had to rely much more on their running game, which I'm sure was depressing for fans of the burnt orange. Last season, the Longhorn ground campaign was led by the two-headed B-movie monster that was Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, combining for 13 touchdowns and over 1300 rushing yards. Brown is now a Ram in St. Louis, so it falls to Gray to score or at the very least put the Longhorns in the position to score. Texas lacks depth in this area and will probably be forced to rely on their production in the air.
Ash's replacement, Tyrone Swoopes, has been splitting offseason reps at the quarterback position with redshirt freshman, Jerrod Heard. Swoopes is quick and uses his legs fairly often but was pretty unimpressive in the pass last year. Heard is not nearly as good as our Jared, but can also use his legs if necessary. Swoopes was the third most prolific runner on the Texas squad, rushing for a total of 262 yards on 108 attempts in 13 games. In the air, he threw 11 interceptions to his 13 touchdowns and completed just shy of 60 percent of his passes.
Before you start thinking we have this game in the proverbial bag, Charlie Strong mentioned that both Swoopes and Heard have improved immensely during the offseason. How much? It's hard to say, but against our secondary Texas is sure to rely more heavily on the pass. While neither Heard nor Swoopes are considered elite, they are certainly proficient enough to take advantage of the inexperience in our secondary entering the 2015 season.
There is no denying the potency of the Bears offense especially when we're entering 2015 retaining most of our offensive firepower. Success against a Big 12 defensive powerhouse like Texas is an enticing opportunity to prove that our guns are good against bigger prey.
Game Changer: And the Winner Is...
While the most heated and exciting engagement this September will occur in the air, Daniel Lasco and a primed Cal running game could prove to be the critical deciding factor of the match. The strength of the ground attack exhibited in the 2014 season has been long overdue and can only improve as Cal can now boast a more veteran offensive line led by Jordan Rigsbee and considerable depth at the running back position with the return of Vic Enwere and the addition of a power back in Lonny Powell. They would be matched up against a Texas rush defense that ranked 58th in the nation. Production carrying the ball can definitely be exactly what the Bears need to give them an edge.
Though some could argue from the tone of my writing that I'm a tiny bit biased, I'm not expecting a blue and gold blow out. Wins are never guaranteed and we're not strangers to dropping the ball on the one-yard line (I'm looking at you DeSean Jackson). Cal does and should have the edge on paper, but the game at Texas Memorial will be overwhelmingly orange.