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Bleacher Report predicts Cal will be the fifth-best defense nationally in 2019

The defense is getting recognized among the nation’s blue bloods.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Bleacher Report tasked themselves with projecting which defenses will be the best in 2019, with yards per play being their primary metric.

The top teams are some of the stalwarts that you’d expect: the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Clemson Tigers, the Michigan Wolverines, the Georgia Bulldogs, and the LSU Tigers. But there’s one exception—a team that isn’t from the SEC and isn’t a blue blood, but does bleed blue and gold.

The California Golden Bears were recognized as their fifth-best defense in 2019. (The Bleacher Report site seems a bit wonky since they’re presenting everything in slides to get dem clicks, but this link should take you right to the Cal section.)

Their projections seem to be largely driven by three 2018 metrics: yards per play (YPP), yards per game (YPG), and points per game (PPG). You can peruse how their top-ten defenses performed in those stats last year. Ohio State seems to have gotten in mainly on reputation and hope that experience from a terrible 2018 will pay off.

Bleacher Report’s predictions for best 2019 defenses

Projection Team 2018 YPP 2018 YPP rk 2018 YPG 2018 YPG rk 2018 PPG 2018 PPG rk
Projection Team 2018 YPP 2018 YPP rk 2018 YPG 2018 YPG rk 2018 PPG 2018 PPG rk
10 Southern Miss Golden Eagles 4.56 6 278.4 3 19.8 19
9 Ohio State Buckeyes 5.77 72 403.4 71 25.5 50
8 Appalachian St. Mountaineers 4.43 4 288.0 6 15.5 4
7 LSU Tigers 4.81 21 338.7 25 21.8 26
6 Georgia Bulldogs 4.94 25 314.3 13 19.2 14
5 California Golden Bears 4.59 9 317.2 15 20.4 22
4 Michigan Wolverines 4.58 8 275.2 2 19.4 16
3 Clemson Tigers 4.19 2 285.9 5 13.1 1
2 Penn State Nittany Lions 4.72 14 350.5 34 20.5 23
1 Alabama Crimson Tide 4.89 24 319.5 16 18.1 12

Let’s focus in on their thoughts on the Bears:

Key Players: Linebacker Evan Weaver ranked second in the nation with 158 tackles in 2018. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins was tied for third in interceptions with six picks. And cornerback Camryn Bynum has recorded four interceptions and 17 passes defended over the past two years. All three are back for a California defense with eight returning starters.

Potential Weakness: Cal doesn’t lose much from last season, but it did take a serious hit at linebacker with the departures of Jordan Kunaszyk and Alex Funches. Kunaszyk had 143 tackles and forced five fumbles last year. Funches wasn’t quite that impactful, but he did tie for the team lead with 5.0 sacks. Can redshirt freshman Evan Tattersall and sophomore Joseph Ogunbanjo fill those holes after barely seeing the field in 2018?

What to Expect: After six straight seasons with a defense that was nowhere close to ranking in the top 50 percent nationally, California unexpectedly blossomed into one of the stingiest defenses in 2018. And the Golden Bears might be even better in 2019. Eight of the 10 leading tacklers return, including the entire secondary primarily responsible for the one-shy-of-nation-best 21 interceptions.

Perhaps the best news is that this analysis is (understandably) fairly shallow for what we can actually expect from Cal. While we will certainly miss Kunaszyk, the most-likely player to replace him is probably Kuony Deng—not Tattersall. They also overlook the return of Cameron Goode, who was a starter from Day One of his redshirt-freshman and redshirt-sophomore seasons, but suffered season-ending injuries in both. Goode has demonstrated a rare blend of abilities to break up and intercept passes with the speed needed to rush the quarterback—the very skill we’ll lose with Funches’s graduation. I don’t say this to criticize Bleacher Report, but more to offer reasons for greater optimism among Cal fans.