The challenge for Cal when facing the Texas defense does not come from Texas's scheme. It comes from Texas's talent.
The film I've seen of Texas's defense shows a team that emphasizes fundamentals and playing fast over exotic schemes.
The problem for Cal is that Texas fits the profile of the defense that Cal struggled against in 2014: a physical defense stocked with high level talent.
Of course, such defenses pose problems for any offense, but this was exaggerated against Cal's young and not yet physically mature offense. Cal's worst offensive game of the season came against Washington, which featured three first round draft picks. This included perhaps the most physical defensive player in the draft (Danny Shelton), arguably the best athlete in the draft (Shaq Thompson), and perhaps the best cover cornerback in the draft (Marcus Peters). Pass rushing specialist Hau'oli Kikaha was also taken high, going to the Saints at pick 44.
Cal is one of the most skilled and talented offensives in the country, and they execute as well as anybody. But they are not the fastest or strongest offense in the country. This showed against Washington's elite physical talent.
Cal's next worst offensive game came against Stanford. While Stanford did not have the same caliber of athlete as Washington, they fielded one of the most physically strong and mature defenses in the country. Again, Cal struggled against this physicality, scoring 17 points.
Cal performed admirably against Oregon (41 points), UCLA (34 points) and USC (30 points), but their physical maturity disadvantage was clear to those who watched the games.
The good news for Cal? They will finally field a team with older, more physically mature players, rather than freshman and sophomores who were thrown into the fire before they were ready. Cal was an impressive offense despite their youth in 2014, and should be even more explosive as they gain more physical maturity and experience within Tony Franklin's offensive system in 2015.
Texas will provide an early test as to whether that maturity will be enough for Cal to thrive against defenses with high level talent.
The Texas film I watched most closely was against West Virginia, an Air Raid offense who Texas limited to 16 points. Texas primarily played a three man front, with some blitzing and four man lines in obvious passing downs. For the most part, Texas lined up in a base front, played simple defense, and attacked the ball with discipline. This isn't the sexiest approach in the world, but it is a winning approach. West Virginia made some nice plays, but Texas forced them to earn whatever they got. This approach allowed Texas's team speed and physicality to thrive.
Texas head coach Charlie Strong's defense was a mixed bag in 2014, as to be expected in a coach's first season. They had some impressive defensive games against good offenses (limiting UCLA to 20 points, Baylor to 28, Texas Tech to 13, West Virginia to 16, and Oklahoma State to 7). They also gave up big points to good offensive teams (41 points to BYU, 48 points to TCU). The game that stands out, however, is the 45 points that they gave up to a two win Iowa State team, which was the most points that Iowa State scored in a game last season.
Cal is more physically talented that Iowa State, executes more consistently, and is more skilled. But Iowa State looked much like the Golden Bears in that game. They operated an up tempo spread offense, and despite facing physical mismatches, had an answer for whatever Texas did. No pressure? Iowa State sat back and delivered accurate passes into tight zones. Pressure? Iowa State picked up blitzes well, delivered the ball quickly, and took advantage of aggressiveness. This was reminiscent of Cal's good performances against talented defenses (UCLA, USC, Oregon). Texas's defense was generally not out of position against Iowa State. But good offense beats good defense, and Iowa State continuously executed difficult plays - much like Cal often did in 2014.
Texas should be improved in their second year in Strong's system. They will force Cal to earn everything that they get, and they have the talent to pounce on any Cal mistakes. Texas is unlikely to be routinely caught out of position or beaten due to over aggressiveness. They will be fast, physical, and disciplined. Cal's offensive success will hinge on their ability to execute both routine and difficult plays and win one on one matchups. Cal's increased physicality due to age and experience will help to limit the number of high difficulty plays that Cal must execute in order to be successful against such a defense.
The first play from scrimmage for West Virginia against Texas in 2014 exemplifies what Cal can expect to combat in Austin:
West Virginia completed this pass. The Chicago Bears drafted White with the seventh overall pick in the NFL draft, and White is now playing on a $15 million contract. White gained no yards after the catch on the play. Texas challenges offenses: how many times can you complete these passes? How many Kevin Whites do you have on your roster? How many perfect throws can you make? Can you drive the length of the field making such passes? How many times during a game can you drive the field making these passes? In this game, West Virginia couldn't do it often enough.
The good news for Cal? They have talented receivers, several of whom will get a chance to play in the NFL. Jared Goff has a chance to be a first round draft pick, if not the first overall draft pick. The receivers can make difficult catches and Goff can make difficult throws. The consistency with which they can each do both may determine the outcome of the game.
To watch Texas against West Virginia, click here.
To watch Texas against Iowa State, click here.