Every now and then we like to converse with other SB Nation contributors and get their insights into a Tar Heel opponent. This week the folks over at California Golden Blogs give us their perspective on this week’s football matchup between the Heels and the Golden Bears from Berkeley, California.
We, of course, returned the favor. Our answers to their inquiries will post on their site on Friday morning. Below are their responses to my serious and not-so-serious questions. We have not edited any of their responses.
1) You have a new coach. What do you know about his offensive/defensive styles?
Nick Kranz: Justin Wilcox, prior to coming to Cal, was a longtime defensive coordinator with stops at a variety of major conference schools. At Wisconsin, he ran a 3-4, cover-2 defense that ranked in the top 10 in most defensive metrics. At Cal, his schemes will presumably be influenced by defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, former head coach at Fresno State. DeRuyter is also a 3-4 practitioner and one of the big questions for the season is whether or not Cal has the necessary linebackers to make their 3-4 schemes work immediately.
We have no real clue what Wilcox prefers on offense, but we do know that he poached Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin, who seems to have done a spectacular job marrying spread concepts with pragmatism and flexibility towards his talent and the opposition defense. East Coast fans may not be familiar with the EWU program Baldwin helped build, but they were perennial problems for any Pac-12 schools dumb enough to schedule the Eagles.
Leland Wong: Offensively, we spent the past four years in an all-shotgun, not-quite-Air-Raid-but-still-pass-heavy system. While Baldwin was head coach at EWU, all of the footage I saw was also out of the shotgun, but with a much more prominent run game—including mobile quarterbacks; he doesn't like to label his offense, but will describe it as "multiple" and an amalgamation of things he's proudly stolen from other coaches over his career. We've seen the quarterbacks practice drop-backs and we have official fullbacks on the roster, so I'm expecting to see some pro-style concepts.
Ruey Yen: There is a bit more secrecy (at least in the early going) with this new coaching regime. Cal fans will be watching this first game closely just to see what is the plan of Wilcox and his staff. One thing for certain, I expect better clock control than during the Bear Raid era under Sonny Dykes. Games should take closer to three hours of real time rather than four hours. Simply with more time to rest (and regroup during the game), I expect the Cal defense to perform better than in the last few years (which would not take much).
atomsareenough: Coach Wilcox has long been a 3-4 guy defensively and I believe part of the idea is to be able to use the rush backers as a way to bring pressure from different areas and keep the opposing offense on its toes. A big problem for the Cal defense the past few years has been stopping the run and I'm hopeful this new division of labor in the front 7 will be better able to penetrate the gaps rather than having to make contact several yards past the line of scrimmage like we've seen the past few years. Offensively, I think Wilcox has less of a defined vision than he does on defense. I think he wants to be able to run the ball effectively and he's brought back the tight end as a position group for us (we had a couple big bodies lumped in with "inside receivers" in the previous regime, but they weren't traditional tight ends), but he also seems willing to use some spread concepts as well—whatever works.
2) What would you consider "success" this season?
Sam Fielder: Bowl-eligible is the goal and would be the ultimate success, but whether or not that's attainable this year is yet to be seen. Barring a bowl, success this year has to be defined by being competitive against teams we haven't been for far too long—namely Stanford and USC—and showing signs of an improved D while not much drop-off on O. This year is all about setting the stage for the next 2–4 years.
Nick Kranz: If we're talking wins, a bowl bid would be an unqualified success. The Cal coaching staff has to revamp the defense because it was so bad last year and revamp the offense because it loses so much talent from last year. That plus a brutal schedule means that expectations are low. Hopefully most fans will be looking beyond wins and losses and will instead be looking for measurable signs of progress—improved discipline and resilience on defense, more balance on offense, and obvious signs of in-season improvement from younger players who will contribute in future seasons.
Ruey Yen: Bowl-eligible would be a great success for this team. Thanks to the very good APR under the Dykes regime, I believe the Golden Bears would only need five wins to make a bowl game. That would be a very pleasant surprise. Short of that, should Cal be able to beat our rival Stanford and reclaim the Axe and/or end the long losing streak to USC, the fandom would be very happy. Unfortunately, given the state of the other teams, it is much easier (and more realistic) to be bowl-eligible in 2017 than for the Bears to beat Stanford/USC.
atomsareenough: Yeah, I think we're unanimous. If we get to a bowl, we've had a successful year. Now, if we go 4–8 or something, it's not necessarily a failure, considering we arguably have the toughest schedule in college football and this is a transition year with a brand new coaching staff, new schemes on both sides of the ball, and replacing some key pieces on offense... But yeah, 5–6 wins would be a good baseline to define "success" for the Bears this year. It'll be tough, but I think it's at least conceivable.
3) Which PAC-12 school is truly the nerdiest? Be honest.
Nick Kranz: You're trying to bait me into saying Stanford, aren't you? But Stanford is its own unique beast. People see them as "smart" and don't look any further. In reality, Stanford is the snooty, rich kid camp on the nice side of the lake. Yeah, they're smart, but they're also outgoing and coddled. They are about as far away from underdogs as you can get, which I think is a key aspect of nerd-dom.
Now, I'm not necessarily saying that Cal is the scrappy, chaotic-but-creative underdogs who make the most with their lack of resources . . . but if you want to believe that I won't stop you.
Leland Wong: I'm not sure I could make that generalization about any of the twelve fanbases in our conference, but I definitely think Cal makes a strong case for contention. Our fans literally brag about our Nobel Prizes, boast the number of elements on the periodic table that we've discovered, and proudly wear T-shirts that say "Voldemort went to Stanfurd". Speaking of the devil, I'll just say their shtick to brand themselves as "Nerd Nation" is trite and that it speaks volumes that they feel the need to try so hard to establish this identity.
Ruey Yen: I don't see any Stanford fansites that dedicate as much time breaking down their team like CGB does for Cal. Cal fans are certainly more of sports geeks than Stanford; I would argue that the Cal fandom is as rationally passionate (meaning being able to have civil discussion about sports with the enemies) as any in the country...despite inferior results for the teams on the field.
Academic-wise, Cal and Stanford are basically equal with a bunch of collaboration. Stanford, unfortunately, is better at branding than Cal to claim the "Nerd Nation" moniker to enhance their academic mystique. Cal, on the other hand, cannot quite reconcile the academic reputation for "Berkeley" with the athletic success (mostly in the non-revenue sports) of Cal.
atomsareenough: It's obviously Arizona State. So many Nobel laureates; such profound and lasting contributions in both the sciences and humanities. Who among us mere mortals can compete with the legendary Sonoran Scholars of Tempe, truly? I hear they even have an honors college now.
4) Your defense really struggled last season. Can anything help fix it for this season?
Nick Kranz: It's blithe to just say "good coaching" and leave it at that, but Cal's defensive issues went well beyond a simple lack of talent. Cal actually has reasonable athleticism, but that rarely translated on the field. Players struggled with basic run assignments, and younger players thrown into the fire seemed particularly unprepared. Some of that has to fall on a lack of good coaching.But how much was coaching and how much can be fixed in the span of one off-season? And is the new coaching staff the group to engineer that change?
Leland Wong: I think our solution to this problem is one that Tar Heel fans will understand after discussing Larry Fedora's style with Jake., but seem counterintuitive to some fans. Our defense will be helped through the development of our offense. Under Sonny Dykes, we also ran up-tempo and a big-play offense; coupled with an embarrassing number of three-and-outs, this meant our defense was stretched thin and overworked. Playing ball control on offense will give those guys time to rest.
Ruey Yen: Better clock control and the slower offensive tempo (at times) should be enough to help the Cal defense. The team defense should easily look better via the cumulative statistics with the game being shorter (fewer plays both offensively and defensively).
atomsareenough: I sure hope so. Though, "fixing it" in proper context likely means going from terrible (~110th nationally) to just mediocre (70th–80th nationally), but we'll take that. As Nick pointed out, we have some decent athletes and honestly, there's a good amount of talent in our starting defense. There's not a lot of depth, but we've got some quality players in the 2-deep. However, a big part of football is everybody taking care of their assignments consistently and working cohesively as a unit and I don't think they were doing that very much in recent years. I also think the change in approach and scheme will help. The past few years we were very vanilla on defense, which can work if you have decent fundamentals... which we didn't, really, and that's an indictment of the previous staff. I expect us to be a lot more sound and add a lot more wrinkles defensively as the year progresses. Not sure how far along they are just yet, though.
5) Where can the team assume some risk or expect to struggle? Will the offense take a step back?
Nick Kranz: Cal fans are pretty confident about our wide receivers and running backs, as there is obvious returning talent in both position groups. The question mark on offense is the line and at quarterback, where almost everybody is a new face. Those concerns are enough that a step back in production wouldn't exactly be a huge surprise. Having said that, Cal brought in some very highly regarded offensive coaches and the previous staff knew how to identify and recruit good offensive talent, so there's reason to think that the step back might be a small one. As is often the case, new QB Ross Bowers may well decide exactly how successful the Cal offense is. If he's ready, the offense probably follows.
Ruey Yen: Cal fans really don't know what to expect from the recently-named QB Ross Bowers. Bears have some talented playmakers back, but would still require a lot of former back-ups or new players to step up as depth.
atomsareenough: The offense will definitely take a bit of a step back, with a new QB and mostly new o-line, but hopefully not as big a step back as the defense will take a step forward. We've got talent at the skill positions and I trust OC Beau Baldwin to be able to get the ball to our playmakers in space. He's proven to be good at that and his kitchen-sink offense is one that he consciously molds to fit the strengths of his players. That said, it might take a several games for the offense to really find its legs, which would obviously be to the Tar Heels' benefit.
6) What player should make UNC fans nervous?
Sam Fielder: Wide receiver Demetris Robertson. He is blindly fast, super athletic, and a dedicated worker. His play last year as a true freshman was incredible and he should be almost unstoppable this year as the focal point of the offense.
Nick Kranz: I feel lazy saying the same name others mentioned, but Demetris Robertson is the pretty obvious choice. He's clearly Cal's biggest deep threat and with a full year of play under his belt it wouldn't be surprising if he's added more variety to his route running. I would expect Cal to try to find ways to get him the ball in space, where his speed can cause all kinds of problems for the opponent.
Leland Wong: I'll try a different answer and say Cameron Saffle. Now I think this is doubly risky because it's not only not Robertson, but I'm picking a player on defense, where we've struggled recently. Saffle transitioned from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 rush linebacker. I think the new defensive scheme will help him cut loose and cause some havoc in the backfield, but he's also showing some ability to play well in coverage.
Ruey Yen: Running back Tre Watson will likely be heavily featured both in the running game and via short passes—he has great hands—with an inexperience QB. Watson split carries with the since-graduated Khalfani Muhammad last year, but will get to be the feature back this year. I expect new OC Beau Baldwin to get him the ball often.
atomsareenough: I'll take a different tack and say the same player whom Cal fans are currently nervous about: Ross Bowers. He's never taken a collegiate snap in a real game before, so nobody really knows what we're really going to see from him on Saturday. He could be a nervous, inexperienced QB who makes a bunch of mistakes in his first game; it's likely he could have an up-and-down performance with plenty of good and bad plays on the ledger; or he could show up and be mostly smart and efficient from the get-go. I think he's talented and has all the tools to be a successful college QB and if he can stay consistent and manage himself a good-enough first game, Cal can win. If he doesn't play well, we'll have a tough time. We can and will lean on the run game to reduce the pressure on him, but he's going to have to make enough plays and avoid enough mistakes if the Bears are going to steal this one.
7) What are Cal's keys to victory?
Nick Kranz: Usually this is the type of question I can answer easily. But from what I know about Cal and from what I've read about North Carolina, this feels like a game between two teams in the middle of significant transitions—Cal with an entire coaching staff and most of their offense and North Carolina with most of their offense and their defensive coordinator. As a consequence, there are a ton of unknowns and I'm having trouble getting a good read on what to expect on Saturday. Having said that, here's a stab?
1. Cal must run the ball with consistent success. Ross Bowers has never thrown a collegiate pass and while there are reasons to think that he can be successful this year, Cal would almost certainly prefer to rely upon the more known quantity of their run game so that Bowers doesn't have to carry the load on his own.
2. Can Cal mitigate UNC's special teams prowess? Special teams have been a longtime issue for Cal and the Bears frequently face a deficit in field position. Meanwhile, UNC typically has excellent special teams units. Cal is returning most of their specialists, so there's reason to think that Cal might be able to hold their own. Cal will at least have to prevent big plays for UNC or big mistakes that hand the Tar Heels easy chances to score.
3. Which quarterback plays more mistake free? Both of our teams will be debuting new quarterbacks.
Leland Wong: Nick gave a great answer, so I'll keep mine short and sweet. Offensively, we need Bowers to play it safe and gain confidence in his first collegiate start across the country. Not only has he never passed, but he only has in-game experience in handing off the ball in 2016's season finale because Sonny Dykes puzzlingly never put him in, despite having four other games where the final score was 20 points or greater. Defensively, we have to rattle whichever of the seven North Carolina quarterbacks is listed as co-starter. Unless you roll with Brandon Harris, you'll also have a young quarterback. Confusing him with our coverage and getting in his head with sacks will be critical for the Bears.
Ruey Yen: Not much to add other than to minimize mistakes. The weather forecast is not too kind on Saturday (even though I am still quite psyched to be in the stands for this game) and hopefully the wet weather would not lead to too many fumbles.
atomsareenough: On offense, be able to churn out yards in the run game consistently, complete enough passes to keep the Tar Heel defense honest, and don't turn the ball over. On defense, it's run fits, generate pressure on the QB, and tackling.
8) Do you miss Jeff Tedford?
Sam Fielder: I miss 2002–mid 2007 Tedford. He was fun, innovative, and great. The last few years were painful.
Nick Kranz: Only in the sort of nostalgic way that some people miss high school. Jeff Tedford provided me with some of my happiest moments as a Cal fan—and for that, I am grateful. It's a shame that he so thoroughly lost control of certain aspects of the program towards the end of his tenure. Unfortunately, for reasons that still aren't entirely clear, the sport of football seemed to leave him behind—and very suddenly. It's now been more than a decade since he found any type of meaningful on-field success as a coach. I hope he rediscovers himself back at his alma mater, but I can't say I'm optimistic that Fresno State is going to see a Tedford-led resurgence.
Leland Wong: Jeff Tedford was the coach at Cal when I started at UC Berkeley as a freshman and began following the team, so I kind of view him as one's first love. (And if referring to a football coach as an ex-lover doesn't speak volumes about our standings in question 3, then I don't know how else to prove that to you.) I recognize that the relationship grew toxic and wasn't working anymore... but it was still tough to part with him and I definitely miss the good times we shared. And though I'll always wish him success, I also know it will tear me apart to see him successful with another school. Now if you'll excuse me, this question has me wanting to listen to some Dashboard Confessional.
Ruey Yen: Being slightly older than the other guys who answered before me, Tedford was the coach who made me care about Cal Football at a different level in my junior and senior years. I will always think of that regime fondly. My understanding is that his success ended when he took a more CEO approach to the team after being so hands-on, particularly with the QBs early in his head coaching career.
With Justin Wilcox being a former Tedford assistant coach, many prominent Cal Football alum who didn't connect with the Dykes administration have reconnected with the program. Aaron Rodgers visited the Cal campus for the first time in awhile this summer (while spreading the rumor that he was back for summer school). I expect more Cal Football alum to come back to Berkeley in the near future to prompt Cal fans to reminisce about Tedford's early glory days.
atomsareenough: No. It was exciting for quite a while and then slowly, he just sort of... lost it. He was working himself to death to turn it around, but the results just weren't there anymore. Kind of like he got tunnel vision and could no longer keep the big picture of the football program in focus and the program lost its identity and started to fall apart. Anyway, I'm thankful for what he did to resurrect a moribund program and he seems like a decent man who cared about Cal and stuck with us when he could have bailed for greener pastures, so I wish him well... but he was deservedly let go when he was and the Tedford era at Cal is the past now.