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Pac-12 Football returning talent: A window for Cal?

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How does Cal stack up against their 2019 opponents when you look at returning production from 2018?

Washington v California Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Over on the mothership, Bill Connelly has been putting up articles diving into the various components of his pre-season S&P rankings*: Recruiting, previous team performance, and returning production. All of them are worth reading, but I’d like to dive into returning production in particular, because I think it says something interesting about the larger Pac-12 landscape.

*Spoiler alert: Cal ranks 47th in average recruiting, 52nd in returning production, and 59th in prior on-field performance, so you can feel pretty confident that our 2019 pre-season ranking will be in the 50s.

The pre-season rankings debuted this morning, with Cal ranked 60th. There’s an expected but still amazing gap between predicted offense and predicted defense. Go check it out!

I pulled all of the Pac-12 teams out of the chart in the article above so that we can look at the teams we care about in isolation. But before we get to them, let’s take a quick look at Cal’s FBS non-conference opponents:

North Texas

Offense returning production: 79%, 22nd in the nation
Defense returning production: 48%, 110th in the nation
Overall returning production: 63%, 59th in the nation

The Mean Green were a 2018 feel good story, going 9-3 in the regular season . . . against literally the weakest schedule in the country. They were a bit exposed in a blowout bowl defeat to Utah State, but will enter the season with plenty of returning offensive talent. They’ll probably be good enough that Cal can’t take a win for granted, but bad enough that Cal will be comfortable favorites.

Ole Miss

Offense returning production: 30%, 130th in the nation (that’s last)
Defense returning production: 71%, 41st in the nation
Overall returning production: 51%, 116th in the nation

In 2018, Ole Miss was basically the polar opposite of Cal: a top 10 offense, and a very broken defense. Sadly for the Rebels, they lose basically the entirety of what made their offense great, but return a decent portion of that awful defense. Between that and Ole Miss’ recruiting violation related turmoil, Cal’s recent habit of catching non-conference opponents with their pants at their ankles appears likely to continue.

Pac-12 Returning Production

Offense

Returning Offense, Pac-12

Good news, bad news: Cal is almost dead last in the Pac-12, but the talent Cal is losing didn’t exactly set the world on fire. But items of interest for Cal fans:

  • Can Mike Leach once again seamlessly replace a very productive quarterback? Probably, sigh. Welcome to Pac-12 football, Gage Gubrud. G, U have lots of Gs and Us in your name.
  • Might be a good time to see Arizona State on the schedule, they’re losing a lot on the side of the ball that was their relative strength last year.
  • USC’s offense was dysfunctional last year, but they have everybody back and a new offensive brain trust. That might be the biggest wild card unit in the conference.
  • Stanford is J.J. Costello . . . and otherwise they’re almost completely starting over.
  • Utah is getting everybody back from what was probably the best offense Whittingham has produced since joining the Pac-12. I wish we were playing Colorado.

Defense

Returning Defense, Pac-12

Here’s where things get fun. Cal ‘only’ ranks 5th in the conference, mostly because five Pac-12 teams happen to be returning a ton on defense. But Cal is the only team in that group that already played excellent defense in 2018. Utah and Washington, the two teams that were in Cal’s class defensively, lose a ton . . . particularly Washington, which ranks dead last in the country.

  • OSU had an historically bad defense, so it probably doesn’t mean much that everybody is back. My guess is that they’ll be garden variety bad next year.
  • Utah and UW have recruited too well and their defensive coaches are too good to have dramatic fallbacks, but I’d wager that they end up being borderline top 25 defenses rather than top 10/15 defenses.
  • Is this finally the season that Mike Leach goes back to having typical Mike Leach defenses?
  • Might be a rough year for Clancy Pendergast.

Overall

Total Returning Production, Pac-12

Here’s where we get to the crux of things. Cal ranks a mediocre 8th in the conference, but the key point is who they rank ahead of.

Washington, Washington State, and Stanford have finished 1-2-3 in some order in the Pac-12 North each of the last three years. Finally, all three are losing a good chunk of the core roster talent that led to so many wins.

Oregon will get a ton of buzz as potential North favorites, and not without reason. They return a ton of talent on offense, some solid pieces on defense, and they’ve been recruiting like gangbusters. But they also went just 5-4 last year despite having Justin Herbert, in part because the rest of their skill position talent didn’t particularly wow. Their defense has some big holes to fill. They’re hardly a sure thing.

Oregon State is still Oregon State - they’re still in the middle of a massive rebuilding process.

In other words, there are serious question marks about every single team in the Pac-12 North.

Our Bears aren’t the favorites, and in fact probably won’t be picked higher than 3rd or 4th by most media types. But Cal will enter the season with easily the best unit in the entire division, a dominant defense that they can build their entire season around. It’s still possible, perhaps probable, that offensive struggles will torpedo a division title run, but uncertainty around the rest of the division puts Cal in the conversation.

But if Cal’s coaching staff, with an influx of transfer talent, can fix the offense, it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine the Bears as division title contenders. It particularly helps that Cal gets Washington in week 2, before all of their younger players on both sides of the ball have had a chance to gain multiple weeks of experience.

Washington will probably have their weakest team in four years. Stanford will probably have their weakest team in . . . a decade?

Maybe it’s not fair to heap on all kinds of pressure on a Cal program that hasn’t won more than eight games since 2008. But with the vast majority of the defense set to leave at the end of the 2019 season and Washington and Oregon recruiting at a much higher level, the immediate window to compete for a division title might open and close this year.