Months have come and gone; new faces have come to replace those who have graduated to the NFL or to their post-Cal careers. This year, Cal opens against the same opponent it opened in 2017. However, this time we’re hosting them at Strawberry Canyon. Due to the recent scandal regarding student-athletes selling shoes, certain members of the UNC squad will be suspended for the opener and others were injured during Fall/Spring Camps.
The two biggest contributors on offense who will miss time are QB Chazz Surrat and RB Michael Carter, both of whom played against Cal last year. In their place, QB Nathan Elliot—a dual-threat QB who is entering his third year with the program—will start. On the running back side, Ohio State–transfer Antonio Williams and sophomore Jordon Brown look to more than replace the lost production of Carter, who had 94 yards on 11 carries and 2 TDs last year against us.
The UNC defense on the other hand looks to field its entire starting unit with the two star DEs anchoring the defense. This unit returns many of its 2017 starters on all three levels of the field with DB Myles Dorn and DLs Malik Carney and Tomon Fox spearheading the defense. One key loss suffered by the Tar Heels is the departure of CB MJ Stewart.
Here is a quick primer on S&P+ by its creator Bill Connelly.
Per the preseason projections, the UNC (53rd in S&P+) squad is projected to be better than Cal’s (68th) by 15 ranks with advantages in both offense and defense. UNC is also projected to win 6.2 games to Cal’s 5.4. In his personal rankings, Bill slated both Cal and UNC in the same tier denoting “little separation within this group”.
Using those projections, not accounting for the recent changes in rosters due to suspensions and injuries, the S&P+ model has Cal and UNC at dead even odds while Vegas holds Cal at -7.5
Cal vs. UNC Offense
Despite having to start the back-up QB for the first four games of the season, the 2017 statistics shows that the gap between Surrat and Elliot is quite small— if the difference in advanced statistics holds true in 2018 (this is a weak assumption since players develop differently with time, but assuming that the relative differences remain constant is the best we can do with the data at hand).
UNC QB Comparison
|Category||Chazz Surratt||Nathan Elliott|
|Category||Chazz Surratt||Nathan Elliott|
|Yards per completion||12.5||12.3|
|Yards per non-sack carry||4.62||5.08|
|Marginal eff. (rushing)||plus-0.2%||plus-5.3%|
|Marginal expl. (rushing)||minus-0.07||minus-0.35|
Elliott had the slightest of efficiency advantages, but Surratt was more explosive and less INT-prone. Surratt also had a bit more of a sample to work with and more time for opponents to adjust to him; plus, he beat out Elliott last fall, which suggests he was better in practice.
For Cal, the key statistic will be keeping the ball in the hands of the QB by shutting down the run game and forcing Elliot to throw the ball to the trio of Elijah Hicks / Cameron Bynum / TraveonBeck. The more the UNC offense relies on the playmaking of the back-up QB, the more likely it is that Cal defense can stay off the field and fresh for the next series. Of course the above mentioned Cal DB trio all need to be aware of where Anthony Ratliff-Williams is lined up, likewise. the Safeties Jeremiah Hawkins / Ashtyn Davis / Evan Rambo need to stay abreast of Williams on deep routes.
Williams lead the Tar Heels with 35 catches on 64 targets (54.7% catch rate which is roughly equivalent to Jordan Veasy’s catch-rate for comparison).
Per the UNC writers at TarHeelBlog, the RBs they have have experience in playing in adverse situations, which means shutting down the UNC rushing game will be harder than expected. The advanced statistics, however, depict a sub-average rushing attack that struggled to sustain drives. Despite being
UNC Rushing Offense
|Rushing Success Rate||40.80%||85||42.20%|
|Adj. Line Yards||94||101||100|
|Power Success Rate||75.00%||23||67.70%|
They have a similar overall profile to Cal’s rushing offense, with a slightly more explosive rushing offense and better power rating, and a worse efficiency rating compared to Cal. Adding the fact that only one established starter from the UNC O-Line is returning to the fold, the performance of the run-offense will probably take a a dip with the lack of unit cohesion in a group despite the talent.
If Cal can force the UNC offensive line to relent and give up pressures in the passing and ground in the run game, it is game over. This seems trite since 99% of football games hinge on the trenches; however, the first series by UNC’s offense will tell us a lot about the readiness of the Cal defense and its ability to enforce its will on a talented—but inexperienced—O-line.
Cal vs. UNC Defense
The UNC defense ranked in the bottom quartile of the FBS. With the departure of key players to the NFL as well as an injury to the starting DT, expectations for a Cal offense in its second year under the Baldwin system are high. Like the UNC offensive line, the UNC secondary is returning one key starter (DB Myles Dorn) and a lot of fresh talent makes them a good measuring stick to see if Cal can outplay an opponent it ought to beat by scheme.
We can see that despite missing a lot of his targets Ross Bowers, couldn’t connect with Demetris; he had much more luck with Vic Wharton and Veasy. By simply redistributing those targets to Vic Wharton / Kanawai Noa / Ray Hudson / Patrick Laird, we can gain a lot of ground. One number to follow is the IsoPPP (rushing explosiveness). If Laird and Co. are able to produce more explosive plays against a weakened UNC defense, it will show improvement; however, if the number remains low against this opponent, it could be cause for concern for the future. This will be tough but not impossible considering the injuries and suspensions in the UNC DT position. This could allow Addison Ooms / Valetino Daltoso / Mike Saffell to plough through the middle and allow the RBs to produce their own yards against the 2nd and 3rd line of the defense.
Three things Cal fans ought to look to besides the score:
- Cal defensive line and outside linebackers give the UNC offensive line a “welcome to Division 1 College Football” game.
- The passing game is able to exploit the UNC secondary through scheme and individual skill.
- The o-line, especially the center and guards, and Laird & co. will need to show that they can produce explosive plays on the ground.
Once all those are checked, we can expect a good year from our Bears. I personally see them hitting all of those marks next week, but as Cal fans, we know that all we can do is “attendre et espérer”.