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Cal can beat anyone in the Pac-12. They can also lose against anyone.

Roll the dice.

NCAA Football: Idaho State at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight year, the California Golden Bears are 3–0 and look like they’re in a good position to make a bowl.

This year, they might just get there.

Cal last year squeaked and edged its way to victory by taking advantage of every situation ahead of them, maximizing the most out of their abilities. The Bears got three non-conference come-from-behind victories, managed an unexpected destruction of Washington State, and then had enough to scrounge past hapless Oregon State. But you couldn’t point to any part of the Bears last season being elite enough to push their way to bowl eligibility.

Not the case this season. Cal’s defense is one of the the best in the nation.

Cal’s defense has allowed 15 points in the first three quarters of each game this season, only letting the gas off with victory mostly assured in the fourth quarter.

The other seven points allowed during those first three quarters came from an offensive fumble scoop-and-score by the BYU defense. The one touchdown allowed by the defense was against Idaho State on a 30-yard drive with a 50-50 flag—and the extra point on that touchdown was blocked.

Cal’s defense is truly elite, an astounding turnaround from the bottom-25 status they suffered through for most of the Sonny Dykes era. It now puts them into position to have a chance to win pretty much any game on the schedule.

And the good news for Cal is the Pac-12 is legitimately not good.

Here are the Pac-12 offenses left for the top-10 Cal defense left to face, according to S&P+.

  • Oregon: 25th
  • Arizona: 65th
  • UCLA: 99th
  • Oregon State: 61st
  • Washington: 35th
  • Washington State: 43rd
  • USC: 87th
  • Stanford: 93rd
  • Colorado: 50th

That’s three teams in the bottom 30 of offense and five teams in the bottom half offensively. Pac-12 After Dark is not what it used to be.

So the good news is the Cal defense can stop pretty much anyone.

The bad news is the Cal offense is pretty good at stopping itself without anyone’s help.

Despite decent improvements week-by-week, Cal’s offense is stuck in the bottom 10, which is simply not a place it can stay and hope to maximize a yield beyond seven wins (which is a solid leap forward!). Because while the Pac-12 offenses are no longer that great, Pac-12 defenses are definitely no joke this year. That will become very apparent after Cal clears the first half of the Pac-12 slate.

  • Oregon: 63rd
  • Arizona: 79th
  • UCLA: 73rd
  • Oregon State: 105th
  • Washington: 3rd
  • Washington State: 38th
  • USC: 15th
  • Stanford: 4th
  • Colorado: 50th

Unless the offense starts kicking into high gear, be prepared for some frustrating losses ahead—not just at the end, but likely in the first half (Tucson or Corvallis just feels trap-y as always). This kind of offensive troubleshooting is guaranteed to cause struggles on a week-to-week basis.

Nick once talked about the ideal situation for Wilcox at Cal being Utah Utes North. Indeed, in terms of ideal profiles, we are very much a 90% version of the Utes:

  • Cal S&P: 120th in offense, 8th in defense
  • Utah S&P: 108th in offense, 2nd in defense

No one plays any team on their Pac-12 slate tougher on a week-to-week basis than Utah. Since joining the Pac-12, their floor has been five wins and their ceiling has been ten. Utah has gone 8–5, 5–7, 5–7, 9–4, 10–3, 9–4, 7–6. On their best year, they can compete for the Pac-12 title. In their worst year, they still find a way to shock a title contender like Stanford.

And these records are alluring:

  • Stanford: 2–1, with the one defeat a three-point loss.
  • USC: 2–2 in the last four match-ups.
  • UCLA: 4–3 since joining the Pac-12.

Anything close to that would be music to the ears of Bear Territory.

(As an aside, I’m looking forward to next year’s matchup between Cal and Utah, when this scenario is very much in play.)

But there is a flip side, which is the usual inexplicable loss because of a malfunctioning offense. Like Utah managing 10 points against a meh Arizona State team at home. Or gritting out 19–14 slugfests against 2016 Oregon State.

Or somehow not having the offensive wherewithal against usually overwhelmed defensive units to finish games where they’re given five, six, seven, eight opportunities to win.

A good analogue for what might look like the 2018 Cal season forward was yesterday’s Ute defeat. The Pac-12’s best playoff hope—Washington—traveled to Utah yesterday. While Washington pulled it off, Utah made Jake Browning’s life miserable and had plenty of chances to really put themselves in the thick of things. Utah’s offense just couldn’t produce anything of substance, and it was a quiet important win for the Huskies to stay on track.

So Cal appears pretty close to the analogue of being Utah North: Monstrous defensively, haphazard offensively. The Bears will compete—they might not always win, but their defense will give them a chance in every game this year. It’ll be up to the offense to capitalize on the chances given and get Cal to a bowl, perhaps beat a few stumbling California rivals along the way?

The Pac-12 is vulnerable enough to take advantage. Let’s go earn it.