Cal Football 2020 Preview Wrap: Key Questions and Predictions
With just five days left, it's time to put everything together and guess at what 2020 has in store.
If you’re not doing so already, you should follow the @writeforcal twitter account, where Owen Kaminski has been doing a great job of collecting all of the limited info coming out of fall camp.
If you’re like us, you’re going to be watching the Washington game at home while social distancing. Why not join Avi, Rob, myself, and over the course of the season a cavalcade of W4C stars* as we try to recreate the camaraderie of fandom without the ability to get together in person. We’ll post a link to the live stream each week on this site, as well as on twitter and youtube.
*Please note that W4C has no actual stars
There are now just five days left in the longest offseason since World War 2.
It’s nominally my job to bring you sober analysis of Cal sports, win or lose. But I’ll be honest. I’m just happy to have Cal (and Pac-12) football back in my life.
It might be a bad idea, and it might be a poor use of time and resources considering objective reality in this country. But it’s been a long, awful year for all of us. More so for you readers who are still Californians by address (I know you’re all Californians at heart) who have watched our home state burn literally while our country burned metaphorically.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that sports have magical healing powers. I do subscribe to the idea that myself and anybody reading this has chosen to make Cal football a fun hobby, and a way to stay connected with our friends and families. It’s exciting just to have something every Saturday to look forward to enjoying together.
This is a long way of saying that I want to try to be more appreciative of what I have, and less distraught with, say, a random loss to Oregon State. I doubt I’m that well adjusted, but I’m going to try, dammit.
Is it possible to have a healthy obsession? I’m pretty sure that’s an oxymoron. Whatever, there’s no point denying it. Read on and feed your own obsession - football season is here.
Ingredients in an overachieving season
Will Craig plays like an all-conference left tackle
It was Will Craig’s injury last year more than any other that plunged the Cal offensive line into positional chaos, necessitating players to shift all of the place and forcing various freshmen to step into roles nobody was planning on before the season. Much of Cal’s pass protection struggles came from the left side of the line, and giving Chase Garbers more time is probably the single biggest potential area of improvement from last season.
Will Craig has the natural talent to be a plus Pac-12 left tackle. If he
Brett Johnson makes The Leap
Quick, how many Cal defensive linemen have been drafted into the NFL since 2012?
Just one - James Looney, who was drafted in the 7th round and lasted two seasons on Green Bay’s practice squad. It’s been a full decade since Cal’s last truly impactful defensive lineman, Cameron Jordan, last terrorized offensive linemen. It may well be apropos that Cal had Mr. Jordan himself narrates the Cal 2020 hype video, because Brett Johnson is poised to be the best defensive lineman Cal has had since.
That Johnson was a solid player as a true freshman playing out of position at nose guard is an indication of his sheer talent. He will surely be a more impactful player than he was as a true freshman - the question is the magnitude of his growth. If he becomes the type of player that is regularly blowing back linemen and knifing into the backfield, he adds a dimension to the Cal defense that Justin Wilcox has not had while in Berkeley.
The Cal offense rediscovers the big play
Something else Justin Wilcox hasn’t had since arriving back in town? A returning veteran quarterback and a returning core of wide receivers that flashed big play ability.
For various reasons, they could only flash big play ability. Chase Garbers and Kekoa Crawford missed too many games, Trevon Clark and Makai Polk had to manage the learning curve of a new offense and power 5 football. The Bears were perhaps restricted by a playbook that But if you want to imagine what Cal football could be for an entire season, just go rewatch Cal’s two 4th quarter touchdown drives against Stanford last year. That’s what the Bears might be able to do - throw the ball downfield often, gain yards in chunks through the air, and punish teams that try to flood the secondary by deploying an athletic quarterback who knows how to scramble.
Ingredients in a disappointing season
Any amount of injuries or COVID positives for starters
It’s something I’ve mentioned at times when previewing the offense and the defense. The depth chart is thin for certain position groups on both sides of the ball. On offense, WR injuries could be really damaging, as the Bears have four trusted returners in front of a bevy of true freshmen. Talented true freshmen, but first year players nonetheless. Cal can likely weather a few missed games on the line or at running back, but the wide receiver core really needs their top 4 options to stay available all season long.
Meanwhile, there are depth issues at every level of the defense, with freshmen up and down the list of 2nd stringers. Lose a guy or two to COVID, a targeting suspension, or a serious injury and suddenly you’re playing freshmen who didn’t get a normal off-season of coaching and conditioning into the lineup. It’s not hard imagining how that could go south quickly.
Nobody can fill Evan Weaver’s shoes
Evan Weaver papered over some issues on last year’s Cal defense through sheer force of will. His berserker play style almost singlehandedly won Cal the Washington game, held Ole Miss in check, and were vital when they had to stop Stanford twice at the end of the Big Game. His departure can’t simply be waived away.
There are ways to manage his graduation. Brett Johnson, Cam Goode, and Kuony Deng can all be significant disruptors on the front seven. The secondary is still full of veteran starters. But if 3 and 4 yard runs start turning into 7 and 8 yard runs, just remember that replacing a single season record for tackles isn’t a sure thing.
Something doesn’t click on offense
It’s impossible to get into specifics here, but this is your catch-all category for everything that can go wrong when you have to install a new offense in a limited period of time. Maybe Musgrave’s offense doesn’t immediately adapt well to college players. Maybe there isn’t enough time to learn a diverse set of plays. We have to confront the possibility that the offense may be less than the sum of its parts, and perhaps for reasons that are the fault of fate and circumstance rather than anybody involved with the program.
It sounds crazy as a concept. The 2019 Cal offense finished last in the Pac-12 in yards/play (conference games only) with a paltry 4.85. And yet the 2020 Cal offense may very well be the best in the Pac-12 North.
How could that be? Well, in part because that 4.85 isn’t remotely representative of what Cal produced when healthy. But just as relevant for this season: check out where Cal’s offense ranks against the rest of the division (and cross-division opponent ASU) in returning production on offense:
Cal, 93% (1st in the nation)
Stanford, 71% (45th)
Arizona St. 50% (98th)
Washington St., 36% (121st)
Oregon St., 35% (123rd)
Oregon, 34% (124th)
Washington, 30%, (127st)
Please note that the rankings above were compiled BEFORE top 5 pick LT Penei Sewell (Oregon) and likely 2nd day pick LT Walker Little (Stanford) declared for the draft. If anything, these rankings have gotten even uglier for the rest of the conference.
IF the Musgrave offense clicks immediately, Cal may legitimately have the best offense of any team currently on their schedule. It also means that the Cal defense, thin though they may be at certain positions, may not end up facing an offense really capable of taking advantage.
Sure, some of these teams might figure it out. Joe Morehead is an excellent offensive coordinator and even if he has to replace an entire offensive line and a first round quarterback, he’s choosing from a bunch of blue chip talent. Maybe one of the new QBs takes the division by storm. Maybe David Shaw has a renaissance/dead cat bounce year.
Or maybe every single other offense on Cal’s schedule ranges from dysfunctional to mediocre, and the window is open for a veteran Cal lineup full of continuity to take advantage.
If Washington hasn’t picked a starting quarterback yet because they don’t like any of their options, would it be much of a surprise if the Bears pulled a mild upset this Saturday? And if the Bears are good enough to beat Washington, who else on the schedule aren’t they good enough to beat?
If the right dominoes fall the right way, this is absolutely a team that can win a division title. It comes down to two games, largely. Beat UW, and beat Oregon, and you functionally have a two game lead over the contenders that can string enough wins together to compete.
The problem that Cal faces this year is that there might not be any bad teams on the schedule.
Oregon and Washington both bring fearsome defenses to Memorial Stadium. Arizona State is generally regarded as the 2nd best team in the South. Stanford wasn’t good last year, but neither were they bad. Oregon State is still in a rebuilding process, but they are clearly on the upswing and I don’t think I need to remind anybody that they beat the Bears in Berkeley last year. Washington State made a decent head coach hire and he inherited a decent talent base by Pullman standards.
By restricting the schedule to just the Pac-12 North + Arizona State, you miss out on a bunch of games that wouldn’t necessarily be easy, but at least would be wins Cal would be favored in. There isn’t a single game on the schedule that Cal could lose that would surprise me. And that means that there’s more downside danger than a lot of Cal fans probably want to acknowledge.
Lose just one or two key defenders for any reason, and the defense could become a problem since early in Justin Wilcox’s first season. If the offense doesn’t take the massive step forward that we all think it’s capable of, Cal could easily find themselves losing a bunch of games by scores of, say, 27-17. When your schedule doesn’t have any patsies, things can get ugly fast. Just ask Mike Leach.
Would it be shocking if Cal were outclassed by Washington and Oregon, two teams that have been recruiting at or near the Blue Chip line? No. Would it be shocking if Cal lost road games in Corvallis, Pullman, or Tempe? No. Would it be shocking if some combination of both of those things happened? Maybe a little, particularly if the Bears stayed healthy, but such is the reality when you’re a program that has a propensity to play lots of close games. If everything went wrong, with this schedule, in a year of uncertainty like 2020, a 2-5 season is a realistic worst case scenario.
I don’t like doing predictions. I don’t like trying to tamp down my own penchant for optimism to try to come up with what I think is likely.
I particularly don’t like it in a season that is clearly going to be a funhouse of the absurd. Michigan State lost to Rutgers than beat Michigan. Kansas State lost to Arkansas State, then beat Oklahoma. Thanks in part to COVID, Clemson nearly lost at home to Boston College. Alabama gave up 48 points in a football game.
To the extent that any team might be resistant to the randomness inherent in trying to play a football season this year, it might be Cal. A veteran team with a stable, steady coach who have taken this virus seriously since the beginning. But to suggest that Cal might be immune to the weirdness is folly. Nobody is immune.
My closest-I’ll-get-to-a-Hot-Take this year is that everybody in the Pac-12 will lose at least two games. Thanks in part to the pandemic, there are obvious holes on every roster this year. Nobody is so clearly better than the rest that they can expect to escape unscathed.
Throw that all into a pot, and I think the most likely final record this season for our Bears is 4-3. Maybe that means 4-2 and a loss in the bonus game. Maybe that means 3-3, and a satisfying regular-season-ending win over, um, UCLA?
Honestly, in my effort to just be thankful for what I have, I’d be happy just knowing that the Bears managed to successfully play 7 games, as that would mean that both the Bears and their opponents successfully avoided a COVID outbreak that has led to the postponement or cancellation of 37 games.
Play the games, have fun watching, get in, get out, stay safe, stay healthy. If that means that we break 60 years of futility in the weirdest year in our lifetimes, you know damned well I’ll take it. But if that doesn’t happen, the last thing you should be is surprised. 2020 comes for us all . . . except for Clemson and Alabama.