For the longest time, I was doubtful that a college football season of any kind would kickoff. In the last few weeks, it felt more like coin flip odds that a season would start. Whether I think it’s a good idea, college football is here and it’s time for the doubters to embrace that a season is—not could be, not will be, not shouldn’t be… is—being played.
With Cal football being sidelined as play continues elsewhere, is it time to temporarily adopt a team? My apologies to the incredibly talented teams outside the Power 3(?) conferences that have provided only the slightest sense of autumn normalcy in their gameplay over the last week. I’ll only be evaluating Power 3 teams with a few guiding principles in mind.
The first principle is I’m not a bandwagoner. Cal football taught us to have a strong heart and, no matter what, we wear it proudly. We tell the whole wide world it’s bear territory, and you know we would do it anywhere. That means I’m ignoring Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma. Despite being outclassed in their 2018 CFP appearance, I’ll also extend this to Notre Dame. I’ll consider schools that have played in conference championships recently. Let’s be honest, given the seven different ACC Coastal champions in the last seven years, almost half of the ACC would be eliminated if I’m too restrictive.
The second principle is do any of these teams give me “Cal” vibes, whatever that may mean. I’ll obviously consider academics and recruiting, but also, I’m looking for the “Cal” energy. I don’t know that I’ll find the “most Cal thing ever,” but they must have those “Cal” vibes to win me over.
CBS Sports thinks Cal should adopt Virginia and TCU for the year because it should be easy to identify with the defensive-minded philosophy of their head coaches, Bronco Mendenhall and Gary Patterson, respectively. Of course, they have to bring up the infamous 2018 Cheez-It Bowl as a shared connection with TCU. Ugh, boring. I refuse to consider TCU purely because they were supposed to be the Bears’ Week 2 opponent this year so they are still the enemy even though the season is canceled. Virginia is at least a marginally interesting team to consider so that’s where I’ll start.
Virginia: Coach Bronco Mendenhall has the Cavaliers coming off a run to the ACC Championship game. With QB Bryce Perkins and CB Bryce Hall off to the NFL, Virginia needs to re-craft their identity to maintain the trajectory they’ve been on for the last two years (win-loss records of 8-5 and 9-5). The 2019 season ended their 15-year drought against rival Virginia Tech, had its first nin-win season in 12 years, and was atop the ACC Coastal division for the first time ever. So maybe Cal hasn’t quite had this level of success yet, but this gives me similar vibes.
On offense, their new starting quarterback is Brennan Armstrong, a 6’2 and 215-pound (come on… okay so the QB similarities pretty much stops there) dual-threat lefty who has mostly been a backup thus far. They may run a two-QB thing (à la 2018 Cal) with Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson, who can make dynamic plays on his legs but struggles with accuracy issues. Otherwise, this is an offense full of questions. Who will emerge as their top running threat? Do they have enough playmakers? Can an O-Line loaded with returning experience improve enough to provide consistent production? On defense, this team is spearheaded by its linebackers—a position group that could guide Virginia to a top-25 defense (at least in a normal year). The Cavaliers have a pair of NFL-prospect level outside linebackers that are 6’7 and 6’5 (Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor) and ready to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. From a recruiting (stars) standpoint, they have looked a lot like Cal over the last 4 years. Virginia has struggled to balance football talent with academic achievement and rely mainly on being able to develop a flurry of high 3-star recruits with the occasional 4-star player.
First game: @Virginia Tech, 9/19
Boston College: Don’t overthink this one. Although it hasn’t been officially announced yet, DE Luc Bequette has purportedly transferred to Boston College, which was in desperate need of veteran D-Line presence. I support our Bears even if they put on a different uniform. Bequette aside, the Eagles are an intriguing team, but there’s really not a significant basis for this. It starts with new head coach Jeff Hafley, who has shown his coaching and recruiting prowess as co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State last year, secondary coach with the San Francisco 49ers, and during Greg Schiano’s first stint at Rutgers. At 41, this is Hafley’s first head coaching position (same age as Coach Wilcox when he became Cal’s head coach) so there’s still much uncertainty about what he will be able to do at Boston College.
Over the last 5 years, Boston College has made four straight bowl games with an overall record of 30-33 (Cal is 33-30 in that span). Even though star running back AJ Dillon is off to the NFL, the team still has some interesting pieces remaining. The strengths of this team are in their conference-leading offensive line and the linebackers, but the success of this team will be dictated by the Notre Dame transfer transfer Phil Jurkovec and the secondary unit. Hafley, whose background is in the secondary and should immediately help improve the unit, hired Frank Cignetti Jr. as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, which Cal fans may remember him as the Bears’ offensive coordinator in 2008 when we averaged 33 points a game.
First game: @Duke, 9/19
Kentucky: I’m told that Kentucky is every bit as frustrating as Cal is, but I think confusing might be more apt. That has to be the “Cal” vibe I’m looking for. The Wildcats were 10-3 in 2018, but, after QB Terry Wilson suffered a knee injury early in 2019, Kentucky fell off-pace. Somehow, Coach Mark Stoops plugged WR Lynn Bowden Jr. in as the starting quarterback, which resulted in Bowden as the team’s leading rusher (1,468 yds), second-leading passer (403 yds), and top receiver (348 yds). You’re telling me that you can basically plug one person in as the entire offense in the SEC and still win 8 games? Okay, this is slightly misleading as 5 of the 8 wins came against non-conference opponents.Today's the day our 2020 posters will be available exclusively at area stores starting this morning at 8 a.m. ET More info ➡️ bit.ly/3hQFK0I
To be fair though, Kentucky is definitely loaded with more talent than most other 8-win teams in the country. Last year’s defense ranked 21st in the country and, with most of the production returning in 2020, defensive coordinator Brad White has the Wildcats positioned to reach similar levels of defensive success. The primary concern should be the Kentucky passing offense. Can Wilson bring back the 2018 Kentucky magic? Do the Wildcats have a vertical threat? Much of the Kentucky offense will ride on the experienced running back and offensive line combination, but, as we’ve seen in recent years at Cal, how much can a running back do if you don’t have WRs to stretch the defense?
First game: @Auburn, 9/26
West Virginia: The colors though. It feels like that alone is enough to justify support. I mean look at this; it fooled me on a first look. And, maybe if we pretend hard enough, we can watch the Mountaineers and see the Bears instead.
In all seriousness, West Virginia had the Big 12’s worst offense last year, scoring 20 points or fewer in eight games. In the second half of the season, the Mountaineers gave up 20 points or fewer in four of five games to end the season (admittedly, they weren’t the strongest opponents). The takeaway here is that they will probably give you a similar grind-out style that we’ve been accustomed to with Cal in the last 2 years. The good news is that the offense has to be better in 2020 with a solid QB room and a WR group with more experience. This feels like trying to find solace in a glass-half-full situation because I’m not confident that this defense will be productive enough. I’m mostly considering West Virginia because the uniform colors are as Cal as you can get.
First game: vs. Eastern Kentucky, 9/12
This may just be my personal preferences when it comes to college football so I’m curious as to which teams all of you are interested in, but I’m going with Virginia for 2020. The combination of recent trajectory, academic reputation, and a QB with the same listed height and weight has me convinced that adopting the Cavaliers in 2020 won’t be all too different. Boston College was a close second-place for me, but they feel too much like Cal in 2017—a young defensive-minded coach with an interesting pedigree, a couple of offensive studs that may be the saving grace, and a defense that is in desperate need of leadership.
So, Go Bears—always. But maybe for 2020, I’ll also say Go Hoos.