If the doldrums of the off-season can be divided into stages, we’re now in stage 2. Stage 1 is the occasionally intriguing period between the end of the season and signing day, when rosters and coaching staffs are shuffled around.
But all of that has, for the most part, settled down, and we’re now in twiddling our thumbs, waiting for spring practice, and trying to figure out how each team might perform now that we know who’s going to be doing the performing.
Courtesy of the always-insightful information provided by SBNation’s own Bill Connelly, let’s consider two measurements of how Cal football is likely to fare in 2018.
First: Bill’s Returning Production Rankings. You should read the entire article, but the quickie summary: It’s easy to say 17/22 starters returning, but better to analyze where continuity is most important position by position. Bill has a metric that attempts to better reflect which teams are returning players and production at important positions.
Secondly: Bill’s pre-season S&P+ rankings, which can now be released because most transfers have been announced and national signing day has come and gone so reasonable recruiting rankings can be added to the mix.
You perhaps won’t be shocked to learn that Cal ranks relatively high up in the continuity rankings - specifically, Cal ranks 19th in the nation and 1st among Pac-12 teams. Cal is returning essentially almost their entire offense (Jordan Veasy and Vic Enwere are the only notable departures) and most of their defensive secondary, along with a couple of defensive front seven pieces.
You perhaps also won’t be shocked that, despite all of their returning production, Cal doesn’t rank relatively high up in Bill’s S&P+ pre-season rankings - specifically, Cal ranks 65th in the country, 10th in the Pac-12*.
What gives? Why the discrepancy between both rankings?
Well, let’s take a deeper look at what goes into the pre-season projections. 25% of the projection is based off of recruiting rankings, where Cal doesn’t fare well, thanks in large part to the small, cobbled together transition class that Wilcox put together after getting hired late into the 2017 recruiting process.
25% of the projection is a blend of team performance from seasons 2 to 5 years ago - in this case, the entirety of the Dykes era. Those seasons saw Cal manage a total record of 19-30.*
And 50% of the projection is last season’s performance, but modified based on how much returning production is coming back. This is where we finally can start talking about Cal’s top 20 ranking in the nation in returning production, and where we can get at the critical question entering the 2018 season: Projection systems recognize that Cal has a ton of production coming back . . . but those same projection systems aren’t impressed at how much that talent produced last year.
This is the point wherein we Cal fans point out that the cold, unfeeling numbers aren’t aware of a variety of factors that might lend one to be more optimistic. The primary factors would include
1. The many injuries (Demetris Robertson, Marquise Stovall, Ray Hudson, various returning linebackers and safeties) that hampered what Cal might have been able to achieve, particularly on offense.
2. The fact that Cal has fully transitioned to the schemes and play calling of their new-in-2017 coaching staff, which has been mostly kept intact.
Still, it’s always a bad idea to dismiss Our Computer Overlords out of hand. You might recall that S&P+ was pessimistic about Cal’s chances even after a 3-0 start, which was borne out by Cal’s 2-7 finish. The reality is that it’s rare (but not impossible!) for programs to suddenly break out with a major improvement in on-field performance without a prior shift in recruiting.
So, the fundamental question that will define the 2018 season?
How much more production can Justin Wilcox and the Cal coaching staff wring out of what is largely the same group of players that went 5-7 in 2017?
*If it makes you feel better, the rankings have Cal closer to middle-of-the-Pac Wazzu and UCLA than to 11th place Colorado.
**Cal’s 5 year program trajectory will look a hell of a lot better when you replace the 2013 season with whatever it is next year’s Bears will achieve. I feel confident in this prediction.