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Revisiting preseason questions and predictions and looking towards 2018

How did Cal perform relative to expectations, and what does that say about next season’s prospects?

NCAA Football: California at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Back in August, I put forth four questions that would define the 2017 season, as well as five predictions. In the interest of bragging about my prognostication skills transparency and post-season reflection and accounting, let’s see how those questions were answered and whether or not those predictions held any water:

Question 1: Can Cal get Pac-12 average or better play from the quarterback position?

Prediction 1: Cal’s quarterback play reminds Cal fans neither of Jared Goff nor Brock Mansion.

These two go together, obviously, though my prediction was so milquetoast as to be virtually meaningless. In any case, perhaps the biggest mystery of the season was at the most important position on the field, where three inexperienced players vied to earn the starting nod. So, what do the final numbers reveal?

Cal passing 2017 stats

Ross Bowers had a better completion percentage than Stanford (because Stanford wasted lots of time playing Keller Chryst and his 54% completion percentage) and a better yards/attempt and QB rating than Oregon State’s anemic offense. And I think it’s safe to suggest that this level of production won’t cut it in 2018.

It’s at this point that we must acknowledge the real restrictions Ross Bowers faced. Beyond his own youth and inexperience, he was passing to a collection of targets that were without Demetris Robertson, Melquise Stovall, and Ray Hudson. Only four players on Cal’s roster averaged more than a catch per game, and one of those players was swing pass aficionado Patrick Laird. It also took about half the season for Cal’s offensive line to gel and provide better pass protection and a more consistent running game to take pressure off of Bowers. Cal’s 11th place statistical rankings reflect real team issues and don’t fall solely on the shoulders of their quarterback.

Still, Cal’s inability to stretch the field wasn’t solely down to their diminished WR unit. Bowers simply wasn’t accurate enough down the field to reliably throw the ball deep. And while Bowers was generally solid on his short and intermediate throws, he had his share of misses. Simply speaking, he will need to be more accurate in 2018.

To Bowers’ credit, he cut down on his interceptions. After throwing eight INTs in his first four games, he only threw four more the rest of the season. It’s also not a coincidence that Cal’s passing offense was generally more conservative the rest of the year.

One of the defining questions of the off-season will be whether or not Ross Bowers can improve enough to elevate Cal’s 2018 passing game. He will have an eligible Brandon McIlwain, a redshirt freshman Chase Garbers, and whichever QBs Cal brings in over the next few months of recruiting as competition.

Question 2: Was Cal’s poor play on defense more an issue of talent, or more an issue of coaching?

Prediction 2: Cal’s defense improves to 7th best in the conference and somewhere around 70th nationally. This is a reflection of both improvement by Cal and also lots of bad defense getting played across the Pac-12.

The answer to the question above was, unsurprisingly, a mixture of both issues. Cal’s defense wasn’t some sort of sleeping giant ready to be unleashed by the first decent coach to step through the door. But there were clearly players that had been underutilized by the previous regime. Most obviously, Cal had talented linebackers who had been severely let down by the quality of the coaching they had received, most obviously Devante Downs and Ray Davison.

But where did Cal rank? Well, here’s my three favorite metrics:

Yards/play allowed: 79th nationally, 6th in the Pac-12
S&P+: 77th nationally, 7th in the Pac-12
FEI: 57th nationally, 7th in the Pac-12

Wow, I usually don’t get predictions that on the nose. One might reasonably ask how much further the defense might have risen had the LB unit not lost 3 starters, but as it is the Bears took major strides forward.

Question 3: How heavy will the transition costs be from another coaching changeover?

Well, the defense got better (perhaps in part because of the transition to a 3-4 front that freed up Cal’s linebackers to make plays) and special teams was fine, so any evidence of transition costs would have to come from the offense. And while the offense certainly took a large step back, it’s very difficult to determine how much of that was due to the loss of NFL quality talent vs. the challenge of learning and adapting to a new offensive system.

While Beau Baldwin’s offense isn’t exactly the Sonny Dykes Bear Raid, it’s still an offense with plenty of spread principles. Whatever struggles Cal had, I’m reasonably confident that the challenges of picking up a new system were relatively minimal.

Most importantly, it appears likely that Cal’s coaching staff will enter 2018 virtually unchanged, particularly at the coordinator level. I can’t wait to see what the coaching staff does with a roster full of returning players integrated into the basics of their playbooks.

Prediction 3: Cal’s offensive line starts the season very shaky but is also the unit that improves the most over the course of the season.

To be fair, this might be sequencing bias. Cal played three of the better defenses in the Pac-12 (USC, Oregon, Washington) all in a row early in the season. Still, the results were grisly:

vs. USC: 4.4 yards/carry, 3 sacks allowed
vs. Oregon: 2.2 yards/carry, 7 sacks allowed
vs. Washington: 3.6 yards/carry, 8 sacks allowed

That’s more than half of the sacks Cal allowed and three of their most anemic running performances, all in a 3 game span. After that disastrous three game stretch, Cal would allow 12 sacks in their final 6 games. That’s hardly amazing, but neither is it disastrous.

More impressive was the running lanes opened up for Patrick Laird, who averaged 5.8 yards/carry over the back half of the season and had solid-to-excellent games against everybody but Colorado, when Cal fell behind so quickly that they had to abandon the run game.

Of the linemen who received significant playing time, all should return next season. If the entire line plays next season the way they played the 2nd half of the schedule then Cal’s line will at a minimum be Pac-12 average. That’s a good theoretical baseline to be starting from.

Question 4: Can Cal, either through scheme or breakout player development, create some semblance of a pass rush?

The answer to this question was yes, but with a caveat. Cal finished the season with a respectable 28 sacks, good for 38th in the nation and 7th in the Pac-12. It’s also worth noting that 14 of those sacks came in just two games - Ole Miss and Washington State.

What I saw was a defense that was pretty good at scheming pass rushes against spread passing offenses, and a defense that really benefited from a healthy Devante Downs. But against other offenses who were either less predictable or kept more blockers in the backfield, Cal’s pass rush was comparatively less dangerous.

Cameron Saffle was supposed to be a significant part of Cal’s pass rush, so getting him back healthy should go a long ways towards replacing the pass rush production of the departing Downs. Still, the loss of Downs, Davison, Tony Mekari and James Looney leaves uncertainty in the front seven. Cal needs their younger defensive linemen (Tevin Paul, Luc Bequette, Chinedu Udeogu, Zeandae Johnson) to take a big step toward next year.

Prediction 4: For the first time in years Cal special teams are a net positive.

Wrongish. The reality is that Cal’s special teams were mostly unnoticed - neither an obvious positive nor a frustrating negative. The advanced stats confirm the eye test, with wildly average numbers. S&P+ and FEI are both holistic numbers in which an average unit (offense, defense, or special teams) gets rated at 0.0. Cal’s special teams received a +0.1 in S&P+ and a -0.1 in FEI.

After years of poor special teams, I’ll take exactly average. And really, the word that defined Cal special teams in 2017 was unimpactful. Cal avoided catastrophic errors but didn’t make any really positive plays themselves.

If you were curious about the specifics of each unit, you will probably be unsurprised to learn that Cal was generally above average average at field goals and kickoff defense (thanks, Matt Anderson and Gabe Siemieniec!) and slightly below average at punting and in the return game. Still, the amplitude of any good or bad was very small.

Prediction 5: The Bears finish 4–8 against a murderous schedule, with a slew of close losses that portend greater things in 2018.

I didn’t get the exact number right, but 5-7 with agonizingly close losses to Stanford, UCLA, and Arizona (plus staying withing a score of Oregon and USC into the 4th quarter) doesn’t exactly feel like a miss. Cal’s 5-7 record reflect a certain amount of team improvement compared to the expectations of analysts and handicappers as well as a certain amount of weakness in Cal’s schedule compared to what was expected.

Here’s the schedule Cal will face in 2018:

North Carolina
at BYU
Idaho State
at Arizona
at Oregon State
at Washington State
at USC

If you asked me to guess, I would project that Vegas would have Cal as the favorite in six games, and put Cal’s over/under for wins at 6.5.

The wait for 2018 begins now.