If you were around during the proto days of the college football blogosphere, you probably recall the work of the Sunday Morning Quarterback. He now goes by his actual name, Matt Hinton, and he's still producing great work at Grantland.
Mr. Hinton used to have a regular feature called ‘Life on the Margins,' highlighting the random vicissitudes that tend to impact teams that aren't quite good enough to stay out of close football games - the type of games that are close enough to turn on one bad turnover, one crazy special teams play, one ref mistake.
Why am I bringing this up? Because 2014 Cal football was one of the all time greatest ‘Life on the Margins' team in college football history. Our Bears played seven games decided by a single possession or less and multiple games that swung on singular plays - often even final plays. You probably don't need to be reminded, but here's a quickie recap:
- Cal beats Northwestern by 7. But the Wildcats were just 38 yards from the tying touchdown before a batted pass was intercepted with 2:36 to play. If that pass is instead completed, Northwestern has the ball in the red zone with plenty of time to tie the game.
- Arizona beats Cal on a Hail Mary. I don't think I need to go into detail on the many things that could have swung this game in Cal's favor.
- Cal beats Colorado by 3 in double overtime. What happens if Colorado manages to score on one of four attempts inside the 2 yard line in double overtime, amongst many other swing plays in this game?
- Cal beats Washington State by 1. What happens if Wazzu can make a chippie field goal?
- Washington beats Cal. This one is a little tenuous, but what happens if Cal scores from the one rather than fumbling the ball to Shaq-freakin'-Thompson? What happens if Cal doesn't fumble 5 times? UW only outgained Cal by 16 yards in this game.
- UCLA beats Cal by 2. What happens if a different play is called on 2nd and 7 from the UCLA 36? What if Goff's pass simply falls incomplete? Does Cal get that field goal?
- Cal beats Oregon State by 14. But what happens if Caleb Coleman doesn't make a perfect tackle on 4th and 2, and Oregon State instead has a first down at midfield, late in the 4th quarter, down just 6 points?
- Cal loses to USC by 8. What happens if Cal recovers their onside kick? Or, even better, what happens if Cal showed up ready to play in the 1st half?
- Cal loses to BYU by 7. What happens if Jared Goff completes any of his last 4 passes from the 14 yard line in the final 30 seconds?
Granted, perhaps it's a stretch to put Cal's losses to USC and Washington into the coin flip category. But all of the other 7 games listed above? They easily could have gone either way. A really lucky and/or clutch team might go 8-4. A really unlucky and/or unclutch* team might go 2-10.
*It is the view of this author that ‘clutch' either doesn't exist or is extremely exaggerated as a meaningful, repeatable skill.
And the 2014 season is rightly viewed as a success. After the 2012 and 2013 seasons, having a team that gave itself a chance to win nearly every game on the schedule was a tremendous positive step and wildly entertaining (if not, at times, equally infuriating).
But if Cal is again a ‘Life on the Margins' team in 2015, that likely won't cut it. And that's because Cal will face somewhere between 8 and 10 teams good enough to beat a marginal team on the right day, which means that Cal would likely find itself pulled towards the gravity of a .500 record, assuming even distribution of luck. If you assume that Cal is very likely to beat Grambling St. and San Diego St., and very unlikely to beat Oregon, then every other game is somewhere within the margins and we're probably looking at 6-6 or 7-5. Progress, but likely not enough progress for fans with expectations for more.
So, how exactly can Cal escape life on the margins? Get better, duh.
OK, I don't want to be quite that glib. I'm going to be talking very macro here, because I'm not remotely qualified to analyze micro issues like how to improve run blocking on stretch plays or the coverage abilities of our linebackers over the middle. Speaking broadly, here are a few ways Cal can get better:
1. Go from good to elite on offense
Fans tend to not focus on the offense because it's obviously what makes this team (potentially) special, but we should talk about this side of the ball more as an area for improvement. Because let's be honest: this offense can get significantly more efficient.
Against defenses that ranged from mediocre to incompetent (your Colorados, your Oregon States), Cal moved the ball nearly at will. But I'm sure we all remember averaging 5 yards/play in a 7 point performance against Washington, or putting up nothing against USC in the first half, or falling asleep in the 4th quarter against Arizona. Oregon's offense doesn't do that, and I think we can all agree that Oregon's offense is roughly what Cal can aspire towards.
There's no smoking gun here, no fatal weakness. The Bears were solid on 3rd down, solid in the red zone, and good enough on the ground to keep defenses honest. In every metric, the Bears were a borderline top 25 offense (after adjusting for pace).
But borderline top 25 isn't good enough. For this team to achieve what it wants, the offense needs to be a top 10 quality offense. With so much skill position talent back, that likely comes down to how strong a moderately rebuilt offensive line can become, and how healthy that offensive line can remain.
2. Improve special teams - particularly coverage units
Cal's special teams play in 2014 was mostly characterized by ‘good enough.' Other than Trevor Davis against Wazzu, little stood out as particularly great or awful. Having said that, Cal's kickoff and punt coverage units weren't great (ranked 90 and 95 respectively in the nation by FEI) and the result was that opposing offenses typically had great field position. You don't need to be told that Cal didn't need to spot the opposition any help against its defense. Giving opponents weaker field position would be a sneaky way of improving Cal's defensive outcomes next year.
3. Develop ANY semblance of a pass rush
I feel bad belaboring this point, because it's an item that has been discussed ad naseum here and elsewhere. But it has to be repeated because it's so critically important.
This is the required ‘defense must get better' item, but I want to be specific here, because I think Cal has a very specific problem. I doubt that anybody would characterize Cal's run defense or secondary play as amazing. But it wasn't disastrous either (at least, directly). Cal did OK stopping the run, and I think they could keep downfield receivers covered for a little while, on a decent percentage of plays.
But if you don't have a pass rush, no secondary will ever be successful. Cal didn't have a pass rush. The Bears collected 16 sacks last year, good for 113th place in the nation, 3rd to last among power conference teams. Even worse, Cal's defense faced a huge number of quarterback dropbacks, 560 in total*. That means that Cal recorded a sack on just 2.9% of their opportunities. An elite defense like Stanford approached 10%, while even bad defenses like Washington State and Colorado managed 6.3% and 5.1% respectively.
*Only four teams in the country had to defend more pass attempts than Cal last year: USC, Oregon, Bowling Green and BYU. All four of those teams faced passes because they frequently had big leads, something you can't say about Cal - which clearly illustrates how little teams feared the Bear pass rush.
I'm not going to do the math on every team in the nation, but after a quick glance at the sack totals and pass attempts faced totals, I'm confident in saying that Cal had the statistically worst pass rush in major conference football last year.
I'm not going to get into the ‘blitz vs. don't blitz' debate since in my mind Cal's pass rush was equally ineffective in both scenarios, in their own unique way. The bottom line is that Cal needs to either find a defensive end capable of getting around the outside, a defensive tackle capable of a decent bull rush, or a linebacker capable of getting home on a blitz. Preferably all three.
What is the likelihood of each item happening? How has fall practice contributed to solving these issues?
Well, I would say that I'm cautiously optimistic. Sonny Dykes sounds pleased with what he's seen from the offensive line, and I think Cal fans can be confident in the current starting five. Certainly the running game came on strong late last year, and there's no reason to think that Lasco and company can't pick up right where they left off.
Defensively, having Kyle Kragen, James Looney, and Devante Wilson to go along with the proven run-stopping presence of Mustafa Jalil means that the line is totally rebuilt. That means plenty of uncertainty, but uncertainty is better than a certain repeat of 2013 and 2014.
Special teams is always a mystery, and other than a battle at placekicker, reports have been thin. The biggest reason for optimism is that a youthful, inexperienced team will often struggle most on special teams, where even younger than average players are often forced into action. Cal should now have the depth to put in more experienced players onto coverage teams this season without sacrificing time and energy for offensive and defensive starters. And here's to hoping that the healthy return of Trevor Davis leads to more success for the Bears in the return game.
Still, Cal likely needs more than marginal improvement to reach the point where they can consistently beat decent teams by more than a possession, and we're not even considering the possibility that Cal's performance may decline in other areas not mentioned above (field goal kicking, pass blocking, run defense, etc.).
So what happens if Cal DOESN'T escape ‘Life on the Margins?' Would the Bears be doomed to a record in the general vicinity of .500? Not necessarily. It never hurts to get lucky. Maybe this is the year that Cal recovers 75% of available fumbles. Maybe this is the year all of the deflected balls on offense fall to the turf, and the deflected balls on defense fall into the open arms of a linebacker. Maybe this is the year where Cal goes 6-1 in games decided by a single possession.
I started fall camp thinking that it would be very, very tough for Cal to escape life on the margins. But, as usually happens as the usual optimistic chatter intensifies, I find myself increasingly hopeful. Is it irrational exuberance or magical thinking? God, I hope not. If there's ever a fan base and program that could use a year where everything breaks right, it would be the Bears. It's just a few more days until we get a few answers.