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The Years of Living Defensively

How far can one great unit carry a team? And just how unique might the 2019 Bears be?

NCAA Football: Stanford at California D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Hi everybody! It’s August, which means I’m back for another ~9-month stretch of Monday morning columns. This is the first of a four-part 2019 season preview from me (in addition to a bunch of other great content from the entire CGB crew). Welcome to football season!

In 2015, the Missouri Tigers allowed 194 points. That’s an average of just a touch over 16 points allowed per game. Their non-conference schedule wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row, but allowing so few points against any SEC schedule is still damned impressive.

That same year, the Boston College Eagles allowed 183 points. That’s just 15.3 points/game. The Eagles also didn’t exactly face the toughest schedule, but they did have to play top-10 Notre Dame and Clemson in addition to a bunch of other generally competent ACC teams.

By every conceivable metric, Missouri and Boston College had top-5 defenses nationally in 2015. For programs without consistent histories of football success, that level of defensive performance is quite a rare and exciting development. You might even be saying to yourself “Huh, I don’t recall Missouri or BC making any waves a few years ago, how’d I miss that?”

But if you’re a math whiz, you might already realize why. If you did the division in your head you probably realized something. Both Missouri and Boston College played just 12 games each in 2015.

Yep. Missouri went 5–7 (1–7). Boston College went 3–9 (0–8). Both programs built generational defenses and couldn’t even earn themselves a trip to the Birmingham or Belk Bowls. Missouri lost games by scores of 10–3, 9–6, 19–8, and 21–3. Boston College lost games by scores of 14–0, 9–7, 17–14, and 3–0.

These teams were weird outliers. It’s even weirder that they played in the same season. Teams with defenses that good and offenses that bad just don’t come along that often. In the 14-year history of the S&P+ ranking system, only five teams have had a top-5 defense and an offense that ranked outside of the top 100. Two of those teams came in 2015, as described above. The other three are Big 10 teams (2012 Michigan State, 2014 Penn State, and 2018 Michigan State) that uglied their way to 7-win seasons.

Even recognizing that we’re talking about somewhat arbitrary statistical cutoff points, we’re still talking about 5 hits out of 1,750 data points. Teams with defenses that good and offenses that bad are statistical unicorns worthy of marvel and study.

Cal was almost such a team last year. S&P+ projects the California Golden Bears to be the sixth such team this year.

Now, we must point out that we are merely talking about a projection. This reality is not yet written. Stacked though the roster is, Cal’s defense is not a lock to be nationally elite. And as much as the struggling 2018 offense lost much of what little production they had, the Bears are not preordained to be toothless and low-scoring.

But the signs are there. When a defense performs at a top-10 level, then (essentially) returns nine starters and adds perhaps the top JC defensive recruit in the nation, the writing is on the wall. When an offense performs at a bottom-15 level, then loses their starting running back and a bevy of wide receivers and tight ends . . . well, a much scarier type of writing—in blood—appears on your bathroom mirror when you suddenly awaken at 3:30 a.m.

This split means that you as a fan are faced with an absurdly wide range of possible emotions after the 2018 season.

If Cal’s offense becomes vaguely competent, they could have an out-of-nowhere fun type of season like last year’s 10-win Kentucky team. The most likely outcome is the mild disappointment of a repeat of last year’s Cal squad, with another low-level bowl reward after 6 or 7 regular season wins. Or we could be treated to a 2015 Missouri/BC type of season, filled with maddening losses when even the most basic level of offensive production could have turned a loss into a win.

And whatever happens will all be filtered through the lens of taking advantage (or not) of a generationally great defense that is not guaranteed to come along again anytime soon. Cal fans have been left feeling hollow when great individual players come through Berkeley without enjoying team success. Rarer is the great unit that faces the same concern.

The pressure is on already. The pressure is on Justin Wilcox, who courageously elected to (mostly) hold firm with his offensive coaching staff after last year’s team explored the depths of offensive futility. The pressure is on Beau Baldwin, who is specifically tasked with wringing production from the quarterback position that rotated haphazardly through four different players at the position last year. The pressure is on Cal’s revamped set of skill position players and on Cal’s relatively veteran offensive line.

And most unfairly of all, the pressure is on Cal’s defense. There were games last season that the defense won almost single-handedly. There may very well be games like that this year. I can’t imagine how hard it is to play defense when just a mistake or two might mean that you’re behind by a nearly insurmountable deficit. But the defense faced exactly that sort of scenario constantly last year and mostly thrived. In all likelihood, they must do so again.

I don’t know how you feel, but I think I’ve been fully broken into loving the extremes of college football.

Sometimes I’ll see Cal fans argue that if we’re going to go ~6–6 anyway, we may as well go back to the Dykes era because at least a 49–47 game is full of big plays and touchdowns. Sometimes I’ll see Cal fans argue that they hated the Dykes era, and they’re thrilled to be back playing “real” football.

My reaction to both arguments? Firstly, I’m sad but not surprised that Cal fans are faced with the choice of choosing between these two extremes rather than having success on both sides of the ball at the same time. Secondly, I think I’m just glad that if Cal is going to be a roughly .500 team, at least they have the courtesy of being unique about it. Whether Cal is playing a game like this or a game like this, the one think you can’t call it is normal.

College football is a sport littered with the bizarre and the extreme, if you dare to look below the apex of the sport. Sure, the fully professionalized outfits at Alabama and Clemson are modeled on machine-like consistency, but most everybody else is subject to wild swings in performances at the micro and macro level, within games and seasons and coaching tenures.

Still, even by the bizarre standards of the sport, the similarities and differences between 2016 Cal football and 2018 Cal football defy expectation. When you look at on-field production only, in two seasons Justin Wilcox fixed every single thing wrong with Cal football and broke every single thing right with Cal football . . . and managed to land in basically the same spot as a whole.

If the last four years of Cal football is evidence of anything, it’s that coaching is wildly important. In 2015 and 2016, the Bears—on the strength of mostly 3-star recruits—went 13–12 with a great offense and a ghastly defense. In 2017 and 2018—on the strength of mostly 3-star recruits brought in by the previous, offensively-minded regime—Cal went 12–13 with a great defense and a ghastly offense. The recruited talent level was not meaningfully different in ether two-year period. Hell, many of the players involved were the same.

But coaching shapes a team. The Dykes-era Bears reflected his scheme, his focus, and his abilities. The Wilcox-era Bears have so far done the same.

Which means that again Cal fans enter a college football season wondering if this is the year that their head coach can finally start to fix things on the side of the ball that isn’t that coach’s specialty. The answer will determine whether or not this is a season for the ages or just another in a long list of football fan regrets.

Over the next few Mondays I’ll be doing deep-dive previews of Cal’s offense, defense, and special teams/miscellaneous. If you have specific questions relevant to those areas that you would like me to explore, throw up a comment below. No guarantees, but I’ll do my best.