Posted on July 28, 2020
The 2020 college football season isn’t yet a certainty, but we continue our Pac-12 football previews with the California Golden Bears. The weekly series culminates in what would have been Week Zero with a conference-wide preview, complete with projected win-loss records and season predictions.
Overview: Returning Offense, Retooled Defense has Cal Sitting Pretty
Returning 18 starters, including the entire offense and seven on defense, California is one of the most experienced teams in the country heading into the season. Though the departure of defensive stars Evan Weaver, Ashtyn Davis, and Jaylinn Hawkins presents a significant challenge to overcome, Chase Garbers and Christopher Brown Jr. figure to shine under new Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave.
Musgrave’s pro-style system features heavier sets, more tight-end action, a greater emphasis on the run, and downfield throws off of play-action. Improvement on that side of the ball is vital, as the Bears managed just 21.2 points per game last season.
It starts with improvement on the line. The unit gave up the most sacks in the Pac-12 in 2019, and arguably contributed to Garbers’ injury issues.
Fortunately, fourth-year Head Coach Justin Wilcox has one of the Conference’s best defenses to rely on, even with the loss of Weaver, Hawkins, and Davis.
Kuony Deng and Camryn Bynum lead the way, but Cameron Goode and Elijah Hicks project to keep Cal’s defense on track for the program’s third-straight bowl appearance. If things go right, the Bears could realistically contend with Oregon for the North Division championship.
Best-Case Scenario: Musgrave revamps California’s offense with his pro-style system, and Garbers solidifies himself as one of the Pac-12’s best. The leadership on offense reverberates throughout the team, and the Bears take advantage of their favorable home schedule. The defense doesn’t miss a beat behind a secondary and linebacker corps that lock down opposing passing attacks and generate pivotal turnovers.
Brown Jr. posts 1,000+ yards rushing to go along with more than 10 touchdowns, and the line efficiently protects Garbers to keep him healthy all season. Though USC and Oregon get the best of the Golden Bears, Wilcox leads Cal to victories over Washington, Arizona State, Stanford, and Utah.
The respectable W’s are enough to secure an outright second-place finish in the North and Cal’s most reputable bowl appearance since the 2011 Holiday Bowl.
Worst Case Scenario: Garbers is unable to shake the injury-bug and the defense takes a step back without the production of Weaver. The season begins with a defeat to Utah, and things never quite get back on track.
The struggles on the offensive line continue to be the catalyst that prevents the Bears from reaching their potential. Though the defense keeps games close, the inability to put up points is too much to overcome. Without a viable backup to step in during Garbers’ absence, Cal stumbles its way to a sub .500 finish.
What Should Happen: The offense should show gradual game-by-game improvement at the direction of Musgrave.
Under the new system, Garbers continues his superior play and Brown Jr. builds on his impressive sophomore campaign. Backup running backs Marcel Dancy and DeShawn Collins combine seamlessly with Wisconsin transfer Bradrick Shaw to make for one of the most effective backfields in the Conference.
The threat to run behind Garbers results in occasional, but deadly, quarterback keeps which gash opposing defenses and set the table for effective play-action sets. The improvement under the new sets inspires the defense to dominate weaker opponents, translating to a confident team that can take down the giants of the Pac-12.
More importantly, the offensive line stays healthy and makes last season’s struggles a mere memory. With enough depth to overcome setbacks, Garbers has time in the pocket to develop numerous go-to threats at wide receiver.
Without an impotent offense holding them back, the Bears grind their way to an outright second-place finish in the North.
What Must Happen: Apart from Garbers’ health and the line’s consistency, a wide receiver or two must emerge as an All-Conference talent.
After pulling down 38 passes for more than 500 yards and two touchdowns last year, Nikko Remigio projects to fill that role. But defenses are liable to game-plan to shut him down, and the development of a second option could be the difference in close games.
Under former offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin’s system, the Cal running backs played an oversized role in the passing game. Brown Jr. and Dancy have proven capable of making plays after pulling down balls from Garbers, but Musgrave must draw up schemes to get his receiving corps more heavily involved. And while the pass-catching out of the backfield should continue, it can’t be a crutch the offense relies on.
Putting those offensive concerns aside, Deng, Bynum, and Goode need to fill the leadership void left by Weaver, Hawkins, and Davis on defense. The production lost from their jump to the NFL is damaging, but their leadership may be missed the most. However, if Hicks lives up to expectations to replace Davis at safety and Deng raises his game even higher, the 299 tackles, seven forced fumbles, and five interceptions the trio made last year could be equaled by a similar committee.
One thing is for certain, Goode’s ability to rack up sacks is unquestionable, as is his uncanny knack for batting down passes. Similarly, the experience and talent of Luc Bequette, Zendae Johnson, and Brett Johnson along the line should wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
Still, there’s no denying that question marks remain after losing three NFL-caliber players at pivotal positions.
Greatest Strength: Proven Leadership at Quarterback
The intangible X-Factor that Garbers brings to the table is hard to overstate. When the redshirt-junior plays more than half of the game, Cal is 13-2 including last season’s bowl win over Illinois. That’s emblematic of something deeper than skill; It’s a sign of the belief he instills in his teammates.
Leadership like that is uncommon, and a telltale sign of greatness. Similar to a respected general or CEO, the team just plays different when he is in the game.
It’s fair to call Garbers the most valuable player to his team’s success in the Pac-12.
Biggest Concern: Replacing Three Defensive Stars
In many ways, Davis, Weaver, and Hawkins were the heart and soul of the Cal defense, and it’s not a given that their production will be immediately replaced.
There are still plenty of weapons to work with, and it’s likely Wilcox has aces in his recruiting class, such as linebacker Muelu Losefa and cornerback Collin Gamble. But the modified offseason has cast more questions than it has answered.
Does Hicks struggle in his new role? Do Deng and Goode make up for Weaver’s production? Does Bynum build on his strong 2019? Or was the strength of the Cal defense rooted in Weaver, Davis, and Hawkins?
Those questions remain unanswered, and every opposing offensive coordinator will be focused on finding ways to exploit the changes.
Deciding Factors: Pass Protection, Ground Game, and Receiver Production
It’s as simple as protecting Garbers.
If given time, the seasoned leader will make the right throw or get yards with his legs. With weapons around him and a strong defense to buy him more chances when needed, he is the spark that ignites the Cal engine.
To protect him, Brown Jr. and the other running backs must ease the pressure on the passing game with chunk plays, catches out of the backfield, and short-yardage scampers to force opposing coordinators to scale back their blitzing tendencies.
Similarly, Remigio’s playmaking is pivotal to limiting the number of hits Garbers takes.
And though the threat of a running quarterback should remain, it needs to be well-balanced to limit unnecessary blows. In the end, the decision-making of Garbers figures to be the difference between a good season and a great one.
Schedule Analysis: Key Conference Matchups
There are unconfirmed reports that Arizona will be added to the Bears’ schedule, but Conference officials have yet to formally announce the addition. If true, it would pit Cal against a team it has lost five in a row to, with the last victory coming in 2009.
Putting that aside, the current schedule features an opening matchup against Utah in Berkeley. The Utes will be breaking in a new quarterback and will be down several key defensive players from last season’s South Division championship squad. If the Bears are to challenge Oregon in the North, it’s a must-win matchup.
The following week features a test in Pullman against Washington State. Similar to Utah, the Cougs will be breaking in a new quarterback, but are faced with the additional challenge of implementing a new offensive system. The Run-and-Shoot figures to struggle against Cal’s defense, assuming the Bears live up to expectations.
If things go right, California should find itself ranked and undefeated with a Top 25 matchup against USC. It’s always difficult to win at the Coliseum, and the Trojans project to be better than last year.
It doesn’t get any easier, as the Ducks come to town the following week. Even with experience on both sides of the ball, the back-to-back tests against the best teams in the Pac-12 could result in two L’s.
The remainder of the year features winnable games against Oregon State and UCLA, and toss-up matchups with Washington, Arizona State, and Stanford. The Bears should hold steady at home against the Dawgs and Cardinal, but the road test in the desert won’t be easy.
In the end, a 6-3 year is an achievable goal, and a second-straight win over Stanford appears to be in the cards, if Garbers and company stay healthy.
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