Follow up: What can we take away from the 2020 football season?

Did we learn a single thing with meaningful predictive power in 2021?

Just a touch over three months ago, I asked a couple of relatively straight forward questions:

  1. How seriously are you going to take the results of the 2020 season?

  2. Will you consider the winner of the Pac-12 Championship as legitimate as any other season?

At the time of writing, I wasn’t particularly optimistic about the 2020 season, but even I didn’t anticipate that Cal would play just three games from their original seven game schedule, plus a hastily scheduled game against UCLA. I didn’t anticipate that the Pac-12 championship would pit one team that didn’t play the best other team from their division against another team that wasn’t even named a division champ. I didn’t anticipate that only two teams in the conference would play a bowl game (and that both would get waxed in the process).

Since the regular season ended, I’ve seen lots of statements about the 2020 Pac-12 season that annoy me. People quoting 2020 season stats and arguing that so-and-so team had the best defense, or the best running game. People citing PFF grades to argue that so-and-so player was the best linebacker in the Pac-12. Those kinds of things.

How can anybody look at the season and say with a straight face that we have any kind of representative sample of a season? Five teams in the conference only played four games each! Exactly one team played the seven game schedule assigned to them before the revised season began! Washington State and Washington played in the same division and had ONE common opponent!

To state the obvious, a four game snapshot can provide wildly misleading results. Pick almost any team in the Pac-12 from 2019 and you can find a four game stretch that makes them look pretty good, or a four game stretch that makes them look pretty crummy. The 2019 Arizona Wildcats are generally regarded as the worst team in the conference, but this four game stretch makes them look like dark-horse Pac-12 South title contenders:

And of course the bizarre, mismatched schedules don’t even get into the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic. Direct impacts like missing key players for multiple games, and indirect impacts like how much time each team did or didn’t have for practice and strength and conditioning during the off-season.

In short, I’m extremely hesitant to state definitively that I learned anything about Cal football. There are things that I think might be true, that might be borne out if we got another 8 games worth of evidence.

Here is a list of things I think I learned about Cal football, that are subject to immediate revision as soon as we get any evidence to the contrary in 2021:

  1. Brett Johnson is an all Pac-12 level defensive linemen.

  2. Cal’s offensive personnel have not collectively gotten comfortable in Bill Musgrave’s offense and it’s reasonable as a fan to have doubts about Musgrave’s long-term success as OC.

  3. Takers 2.0 aren’t as good as Takers 1.0, but they’re still solidly a strength of the team and Cal would benefit greatly if most of their secondary elects to use their extra year of eligibility at Cal.

  4. Cal needs to invest time and energy into improving on special teams.

Not exactly the stuff of gutsy hot takes, is it? But again, four games of evidence, with a variety of players missing due to COVID. I suppose at some point between now and next September I’ll probably spend some time expanding on this list of things I think I learned in 2020, even though I’m not really all that confident about how true they all are.

So, a question for you to ponder in the comments below, and between now and next September:

Did you learn anything about Cal football 2020 that you think is relevant to predicting what will happen in 2021?