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What's the toughest game for Cal football in 2016 and why is it USC?

Le sighs.

HydroTech: In the 2016 Cal Football Season Predictions (Spring Edition) post, atomsareenough felt that "Hydro's ballot has only a little to do with reality. I have nothing but respect for his football knowledge and analytical skills, but 5% chance to beat Oregon and 1% chance to beat USC isn't a prediction, it's just PTSD." Let me explain my 1% win probability.

I think that year in and year out, the toughest game for Cal to win is and will always be the USC game. Cal hasn't beat USC since 2003. Even when USC has been at its weakest, Cal just can't seem to get the win against USC. What gives? I think it's the streak. I think it's the fact that we've lost to them 12 straight times. This is the longest losing streak Cal has suffered against USC, beating the previous losing streak of 11 straight games. It's in Cal fans' heads. It's in the Cal players' heads. It's in the USC players' heads. Aside from the usual Cal vs. USC rivalry, this game means so much more because of the streak. No USC player wants to be on the team that lost to Cal and let that win streak end. Every Cal player wants to be on that team that finally got the monkey off its back and broke that streak.

Every year, it seems like USC turns up for that game. Cal always seems more energized and amped up for the game too, but when it comes to actually performing, executing, and winning your positional battle, USC always comes out on top. Maybe the Cal players put too much pressure on themselves. Maybe the streak is killing the Cal players' confidence. Even when USC has been at its weakest and Cal has had the pieces to get the win, it always seems like the wheels just fall off somehow. I don't know what it is, but I'm starting to feel like it's a curse.

In 2006, USC managed to hold Cal's great 2006 offense to only 275 total yards and 7 offensive points. In 2007, Longshore threw an INT while Cal was driving the field in the final minutes to tie the game. In 2008, Cal loses 17-3 and only manages 165 yards gained and 13 first downs. In 2009, USC's defense holds future first round pick Jahvid Best to only 47 yards on the ground and Cal barely avoids a shutout with a field goal in the 4th quarter of the 30-3 loss. In 2010, USC goes up 42-0 at halftime and accumulates 602 offensive yards. In 2011, Cal commits five turnovers and hands away the game to USC on a silver platter. In 2012, USC was smarting from its loss to the Cardinal the week prior, but managed to bounce back with over 500 yards offense for a 27-9 win after being held to 280 yards the week prior. In 2013, Cal had just as much yardage as USC, 10 more first downs, and didn't commit a single turnover but still got crushed 62-28. In 2014, Cal can't recover an onside kick in the final minutes of the game (or force a USC punt thereafter) in a narrow 38-30 loss. In 2015, behind future first overall pick in the NFL Draft, Jared Goff, Cal matches USC in every major statistical category but commits three turnovers which proved to be a difference-maker in another narrow 27-21 loss.

Cal has had the talent to beat USC. Cal should have beat USC many times in the past 12 years. But between the random blowouts, the bad defense, the turnovers, the fumble-itis, and just barely coming up short time and time again, you can't help but wonder if the football gods have it out for Cal. They've teased Cal fans with the hope of a victory time and time again. What will it take to finally get a win?

Call it what you will. Maybe it's "PTSD", maybe it's not. It's just that for the past 12 years, I've seen Cal go up against USC and seemingly lose in every way imaginable. Cal fans dream of seeing the team go to the Rose Bowl before they die. I dream of seeing Cal beat USC once more before I die.

Nik Jam: I agree with HydroTech. The same logic can be applied to Stanford even though the losing streak is twice as long. In fact, I was going to make a similar argument. Stanford should be as beatable as ever with a new QB, but I think Cal could overthink the game and feel a lot of pressure due to:

the long losing streak
it's a home game, so there might be a "win now, or we have to break the streak AT their place next year"
it's Stanford

If Cal can overcome that pressure, Stanford should be very much winnable (of course... Stanford could wind up being 10-0 because they seem to just get stronger the more star players they lose... bastards!)

boomtho: I swear there's no groupthink among the CGB writers... but I'm also going with USC. I'm thinking that it's partially due to the streak, but moreso due it being an away game, on 6 days rest, against what figures to be a team contending for a Pac-12 South title. Oh, and the 6 days rest... if after playing Oregon, which means the team might have a higher than normal level of fatigue.

I am definitely encouraged by how Cal played against USC last year, however! So I kind of believe there's a chance, likely just in time for Cal to crush my dreams, again.

Andrew G Miller: Yeah, it's USC. I think the short week after Oregon is the main factor here, especially since the Trojans will be coming off a bye. In my memory, the Bears always need a quarter or two to catch up to USC's speed, and coming into the game tired certainly won't help with that. You just know the Trojan offense won't take too much of a step back, even with a new QB, and will find some new and innovative way to frustrate us.

I'll also be at this game, making my first trip to the Coliseum since we lost there in it'll probably be another extra-painful loss! Woohoo!

Nick Kranz: Everybody has said USC . . . because that's the right answer. Our toughest road game in a season where the Pac-12 will likely be full of many good-not-great teams. But I'd like to throw a shout out to Washington State on November 12. The Cougars are definitely at least the 2nd best team Cal plays on the road, and if USC has another mini-implosion (which for them is 8-4, sigh) and the Cougars live up to their offensive billing, they could end up being better than the Trojans. Throw in the likelihood of inclement weather at the Palouse in mid November and you've got a potentially scary game.