Cal Football Countdown: Two Days, The California Schools
We've had all off-season to talk about the opener, so with Cal heavily favored to beat a likely feisty, but outmatched UC Davis team -- and all hell set to break loose on the season forecast should they not -- we're going to use one of the precious remaining slots in the Countdown to look way, way past them.
Today's number is two, which I originally snatched up because I expected to be writing about Cal's chances of extending the win streak over USC. That felt kind of shallow in scope, so instead, I'm going to use it to examine the odds of beating two out of three CA rivals, something cal haven't done in a decade (2009, the last Big Game win, and a 45-26 victory over Rick Neuheisel's Bruins).
It's year two of the JT Daniels experience, as SC attempts to bring itself -- and its fanbase -- kicking and screaming into the modern age by way of Air Raid. As usual, there's no shortage of talent here, whether it's Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pitman, true freshman Munir McClain who their staff absolutely loves.
Last season, it took everything for the Bears to squeeze by with a 15-14 win, including a safety and a do-or-die 4th down conversion to milk the last seconds out of the clock. At home this season, it will once again figure to be a battle of strength on strength, with the Takers squaring off against Pittman, St. Brown and company once again, and while the SC version of the Air Raid hasn't yet made its debut at the time of writing, Cal's tended to do well enough against the WSUs of the world to feel like the game will be decided elsewhere...like in the trenches against Jackson, or in execution. It feels unlikely that USC will be so willing to hand over multiple unsportsmanlikes again -- bless Vic Wharton's heart -- and suffer just the one massive coverage breakdown for the key score.
To make matters slightly more difficult, I am on the record as believing Clay Helton will be fired long before we get to him.
If you're like me and you believe that the Stanford football program has more or less peaked already and are now in the beatable range, the last few years have to be incredibly frustrating. Two upset bids ended on late interceptions, a run of games decided because the previous head coach played to manage the deficit, and you know the rest.
Because the Bears have only gotten more Stanford-like since Justin Wilcox took over, this one really comes down to touchdown efficiency above anything else. The talent gap doesn't come into play as much in this rivalry game, traditionally speaking, but if you kick field goals, and Stanford is running off another 6+ minutes off the clock on the way to tie; drop a possession and you're already behind. That's happened too often during the time the Cardinal have had the Axe, and getting it back will require aggressive game management and finishing drives.
Last season, the Bears were caught off-guard and out-physicaled by a young UCLA team that should have been reeling at that point, and if that sounds somewhat familiar, it's because it should be -- looking back on it now, it was very, very much like the 2011 game in Westwood, where Kevin Prince ran roughshod.
(The crushing run of turnovers didn't help in this one.)
Will there be a more concerted effort to handle Joshua Kelley this time around? Undoubtedly. Will the Bears do better than -5 in the turnover column? Almost certainly. All of that should ensure a closer result than the 30 point margin that marked last year's game. How much closer than that -- or if the Bears win -- I'm not entirely comfortable projecting at this point. I think I'm in the minority of folks who thinks quite highly of Kelly still, and the youth (albeit lacking in depth) of UCLA should allow them to improve by leaps and bounds, particularly for Thompson-Robinson. The winning scenario here, like it will be for most Cal games this season, will be basically to smother them and win ugly.
Conclusion: at this point, it seems fairly unlikely that they get two CA rivals, but when you have one strong unit and another that just needs to play okay to give you a chance in every game, anything's on the table.