We’re less than two weeks away from kickoff in Australia. The Bears will practice just 5 more times before heading past the International Date Line for game week. While we have practice reports from various dedicated beat writers and/or CGBers, it’s still really tough to say with any certainty how the 2016 season will proceed. Here’s an attempt to organize the thoughts racing through my head, both dreams and fears, as the season finally draws near. It’s time for Optimist/Pessimist/Realist!
Let’s face facts - as much as Cal’s defense improved from 2014 to 2015, the Bears were still well below average last season relative to the Pac-12, and relative to power 5 conference teams. Thanks to a questionable blocking scheme and inexperience, the same was true of Cal’s offensive line. Meanwhile, special teams ranged from adequate to disastrous.
So while we’re all thrilled to finally return to the post-season and generally competitive football, it’s silly to suggest that there isn’t rampant room for improvement in every phase of the game. And there’s reason to think that the Bears can realize that potential improvement.
Let me paint you a picture. Cal’s offense doesn’t miss a single beat despite losing Goff and 85% of last year’s WR production, because a monster offensive line, fully unleashed in Jake Spavital’s scheme, provides the ultimate security blanket for a new quarterback: a dominant running game. Meanwhile, Davis Webb can’t always make the same NFL-level throws down the field that Goff did, but he makes all of the easy throws and enough of the tough ones to keep the defense more than honest. Cal is going to field another top 15-20 offense.
And while it hurts to lose so many key pieces on defense, let’s be real: the young guys are ready to step in and replicate that production. Darius Allensworth plays at an all-conference level in the secondary, Cameron Saffle and Noah Westerfield are disruptive along the line, a young but talented collection of safeties combine for a bunch of big plays, and nobody notices the lack of depth at linebacker because Cal is always playing nickle and dime packages - because opposing offenses have to pass the ball to keep up with the Bear Raid.
Meanwhile team depth finally means that Cal has strong special teams units. With a year of experience, Matt Anderson pushes for all-conference honors, coverage units are strong, and Cal’s bevy of new wide receivers leads to multiple game-breaking return options.
And lost amidst the focus on Cal - the Pac-12 just isn’t that great this year. The Bears take advantage to not only match but exceed last year’s win total, going 9-4 and building all kinds of buzz for 2017 with so much returning talent.
Cal was 8-5 last year, which was just dandy, but with so many of the players who made that record possible gone, it’s really hard to see how major regression isn’t inevitable - teams simply don’t make major steps forward when they lose so many seniors/transfers unless they’ve been recruiting like gangbusters, and that hasn’t quite been the case.
While Cal should be better on the line and at running back, the incremental improvements as juniors turn into seniors just can’t make up for losing one of the best (and, from a workload perspective, most important) quarterbacks in program history, to say nothing of the wide receivers. That’s no knock on Davis Webb and the new pass catchers, but with so many new players trying to develop chemistry, mistakes are inevitable. Broken routes, miscommunication, bad reads . . . that kind of stuff is inevitable with so much changeover. And without Goff to make defenses have to respect pretty much the entire field, the degree of difficulty is going to go up as well. Cal is going to slide into the middle of the conference in terms of offensive production.
And on defense . . . well, as much as people want to minimize the contributions of the many starters Cal lost, the reality is that they were the best players on the roster, and that they weren’t beaten out by anybody lower down on the depth chart. The defense is going to regress as well. Losing their most consistent pass rusher in Kyle Kragen particularly hurts. Damariay Drew’s injury means that an inexperienced secondary is consistently exposed thanks to an absent pass rush, and the defense looks like it’s being coached by Andy Buh again.
And while Cal should have a good field goal unit, there’s no particular reason to expect special teams problems to go away without either coaching changes or personnel changes.
So we’ve got a young team that’s going to regress on both offense and defense, with a brutal schedule with only two games they are clear favorites to win. It’s a disastrous 3-9 season that has the fan base in turmoil.
2016 is a new year, but in a lot of ways it’s going to remind us of 2015 . . . or perhaps even more likely, one particular stretch of 2014. Why?
Because Cal will be a solid team this season, and they will play 11 other solid teams (and Hawaii!) and a bunch of those games will be coin flip games, and depending on things like injuries and bouncing oblong footballs and Pac-12 refs and random chance, the Bears will probably go somewhere between 5-7 and 7-5. And while that’s hardly thrilling, most will see it as a satisfying year that falls somewhere between rebuilding and reloading.
While the offense is unlikely to hit quite the same highs without Goff, it’s equally true that a Sonny Dykes team with any amount of continuity will never have a bad offense. and considering how Cal has been recruiting on that side of the ball (both coaches and players!) the Bears will be fine. There will be a frustrating game where everything seems a little off and Cal only scores 24, and an awesome game where the freshmen are running riot and they drop 50 plus a little more.
And while the defense isn’t going to make headlines, it won’t regress anywhere close to 2013 or 2014. There’s simply too many solid young players to plug in to allow something like that to happen. The pass rush will almost certainly be a weakness, and Cal will struggle against heavy run teams (sigh, Stanford) that can punish a lack of linebacker depth, but the defense will get enough stops against most teams to give the offense at least a fighting chance.
And special teams probably won’t be a strength, but there’s a solid chance it won’t be a weakness either, which is all you can ask after the last few seasons. Also, pessimist Nick is a dick.
Cal Men’s Basketball schedule analysis
In case you weren’t aware, here’s the release:
South Dakota State (39)
UC Irvine (65)
San Diego St in Sacramento (30)
SE Louisiana (332)
Louisiana Tech (129)
Alcorn St. (252)
Princeton in Hawaii (47)
Seton Hall in Hawaii (23)
UC Davis (279)
Cal Poly (243)
Let’s start with the good: Cal has scheduled six teams that finished last season in the RPI top 100, five of which were in the top 50. That’s excellent!
Oh, but the bad. Cal has also scheduled four teams with RPIs of 243+, which is probably two more than they should. UC Davis and Cal Poly will hopefully be better this year, but Alcorn State and SE Louisiana could easily be gigantic RPI anchors.
It’s not a blemish that’s worth getting worked up over, and who knows if there were actually better scheduling opportunities available to Cal, but if we could replace a couple of the more obscure teams with, say, Fresno St. or Nevada or Long Beach St, then Cal would have an unimpeachably strong schedule.
It’s worth noting that there are no true road games, so when Cal inevitably doesn’t go 9-0 on the road in conference play, it will be picked on as a blemish come March. But if the Bears take care of business on neutral courts it shouldn’t impact seeding.