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Oregon Hype Week Begins

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The first real test for Cal is upon us.

Mississippi v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For the first time since October 2009, California Memorial Stadium will host a match-up between two ranked team. Thus, I feel confident in saying that this is Cal’s most important home game in nine freakin’ years.

If you’re a fan of the California Golden Bears, this sounds both exciting and scary. Consider this evil question asked of me by one Avinash Kunnath:

We all instinctively know the general history here, but for the sake of unadulterated self-flagellation: In the last decade of Cal football (i.e. 2008-onward), Cal is 2–6 in games immediately after receiving an AP ranking. One win was a season-opening defeat of Maryland in 2009 and the other was a victory over Wazzu in 2015—you may have forgotten that Cal was ranked a week prior to their College Gameday defeat on the road in Utah. In total, Cal is 4–10 over the last decade when entering the game with an AP rank.

Of course, the reason for that poor record is pretty obvious—Cal hasn’t actually been one of the best-25 teams in the nation for the vast majority of the last decade and they only earn a rank when they happen to have a string of winnable games in a row. And when the inevitable good team comes around, Cal loses the game along with the ranking that they didn’t really deserve in the first place.

That Cal enters this game ranked is, for purposes other than hype, meaningless. As Avi has written, Cal will either immediately earn the ranking that has already been given or lose it so quickly that it will quickly become a forgotten footnote for trivia buffs and die-hards.

So what are the odds that Cal actually wins this game? Well, that depends on who you ask. Vegas says Oregon by 3. The Sagarin Predictor has Cal by 2. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ predictions aren’t out yet, but based on changes from last week I think they’ll have Oregon by about 3 points as well. Which means that the various nominally objective predictors all see Cal’s chances to win at somewhere between 43–54%. It’s all but a coin flip.

What should we expect from the Ducks?

Mario Cristobal has been at Oregon for just two years, first as an offensive coordinator and now as head coach, and most of his non–head coaching jobs prior to Oregon were offensive line–related. As a former offensive tackle during some of Miami’s glory days, that makes plenty of sense.

Cristobal was hired to be Florida International’s head coach primarily on the strength of his recruiting reputation and he compiled a record of 27–47 during his five-year tenure. That’s obviously an ugly-looking number, but it’s worth remembering that FIU was arguably the single-worst FBS program in the country at the time of Cristobal’s hire. FIU went to their first ever two bowl games during his tenure and have only managed one in the five years since he was fired.

Cristobal was hired to recruit coach offensive linemen at Alabama, where he was consistently ranked as one of the very best recruiters in the country. After four years, Willie Taggart brought him to Oregon to be his offensive coordinator and it’s probably not a coincidence that Oregon’s 2018 class ranked top 20 and their 2019 class ranks top 5. Dude knows how to bring in the talent.

A cynic might argue that he’s all recruiting—no coaching. That strikes me as incorrect, since Nick Saban doesn’t tend to tolerate anybody for four years who can’t get his players to produce. More than that, Oregon has had solid-to-excellent offensive line production during Cristobal’s tenure, which would presumably be his specialty as a coach.

Philosophically, he hasn’t done much to change how Oregon plays. Despite playing experience in Miami’s pro-style system, Cristobal was an early spread adopter and brought that system with him to FIU. He probably helped Lane Kiffin start to incorporate spread concepts at famously stodgy Alabama and Oregon has maintained their fast-paced, run-first, spread offense during his 1+ years in Eugene—Oregon was the eighth-fastest team in the country last year and are currently top-10 again this year.

CGB will have more in-depth Oregon previews later this week, but consider this a quick mini-preview focusing as much on what happened last year as what might happen this year.

What exactly did happen last year? For those who need a reminder, here’s the condensed Five Factors Box score (Link to expanded version):

Cal-Oregon 2017 five factors box score

Oregon is famous for their skill-position talent, but this was a game that Cal badly lost along both trenches. A few numbers to pull out:

  • Oregon: 64% success rate (41% national average) and 50% (38% national average) opportunity rate when running.
  • Cal running game: 2.18 yards/carry
  • Cal sacks allowed: 7; Oregon sacks allowed: 0

That’s a massive line-of-scrimmage production discrepancy. I guess the good news is that even if everything were the same as last year you’d probably expect some regression to the mean because that’s uuuuugly.

As we all well remember, Oregon lost potential first-round draft pick Justin Herbert to injury early in the game... and proceeded to simply run the ball down Cal’s throat as if the guy behind center didn’t particularly matter. Meanwhile, the Cal offensive line was completely overwhelmed as run after run got stuffed and Ross Bowers spent four quarters under extreme physical duress.

What, if anything, has changed since last year to give Cal fans optimism that Cal can better shut down the basics of Oregon’s offense? Well, to start, Oregon lost one important piece of their 2018 run game to the NFL draft in All-Pac-12 first-team tackle Tyrell Crosby. But Oregon’s other four offensive linemen are returning starters and the Ducks aren’t exactly lacking in skill-position talent at running back despite a couple graduations; their run game is formidable. If Cal is going to do better this year, it will be because the Bears have gotten better—not because the Ducks have gotten worse.

What Cal fans have to hope is that improved 2018 defensive performance is real and not a three-game mirage. So far this season, Cal’s defense has been able to maintain the same 2017-level of big-play prevention while playing significantly more aggressively at the line of scrimmage. Press coverage, safety help, attacking linebackers—Cal’s defensive coaches are now trusting players to execute their assignments without having as much help behind them.

Here is where it’s worth noting that UNC, BYU, and Idaho State simply didn’t have the offensive talent to punish Cal for that strategic choice. Last year against Oregon, you saw lots of linebackers playing tentatively off the line and waiting for Oregon to signal what they were running, which is a good formula for giving up yardage. With two weeks to prepare, hopefully Cal’s defense will be prepared to play with confidence and aggression even against a scheme designed to keep defenders static.

It all starts with Cal’s defensive line. Luc Bequette, Rusty Becker, Zeandae Johnson, Tevin Paul, and Chris Palmer have generally held up quite well at the point of attack. But again, the Oregon offensive line will challenge them in a way that none of Cal’s first three opponents were able to.

If you watch Oregon/Stanford highlights, you will see lots of really well–executed plays with a healthy dose of Oregon players making Stanford defenders miss. One long throw is an Oregon slot receiver simply running by a safety. One long touchdown is a perfectly-blocked power run in which the only Stanford safety left to make the tackle is juked out of his shoes. You’re seeing a theme here—when Oregon wins along the line, they are likely to get a big play unless a safety can minimize the damage. This will be a big test for Cal’s safeties, who so far have looked like the most improved position group on the entire team.

The bottom line: While Cal’s defense is almost certainly going to improve on last year’s performance, Oregon with Justin Herbert behind center isn’t the type of offense to get completely shut down until garbage time a la UNC and BYU. Which means the Cal offense will need to produce more than what we’ve seen to start the season.

Cal’s lines lost to Oregon’s lines last year. The onus will be on both lines to show how much better they’ve gotten one year later. I can’t wait—is it really still five days away?