We’re officially 98 days out from kickoff, meaning 14 Saturdays until football. Given my schedule, I may need a few bye weeks as our Heels do, so let’s start opponent previews!
When a bad team fires its football coach, especially on the lower rungs of the P5 level, it is largely assumed that the new coaching staff will take a “year zero” approach to his team— favor young talent over experience, slowly install a new system, and throw his players to the wolves, record be damned. The hope is that, during the honeymoon phase, the coach has enough “new car smell” good will and can articulate his plan well enough to pay some dividends by year two.
With the weird circumstances surrounding Justin Wilcox’s hiring at Cal, year zero may have even been an unfair ceiling to place on the former Wisconsin DC. Upon waking up on September 17 of last year, Wilcox’s first team was 3-0 with wins over Carolina and Ole Miss. Expectations: exceeded.
To a lesser extent than Carolina, Cal was bitten by the injury bug. Carolina joined Weber State as the only two teams who had to face former 5-star WR Demetris Robertson and newly-anointed Texas savior RB Tre Watson. LB Cameron Saffle ONLY played against UNC.
With all of that said, Wilcox (and his coordinators, who are both tremendous and former head coaches) had a solid first impression in Berkeley, and the Heels are going to face a tough test in Week 1.
The Bears turned heads early with the 3-0 start, followed by a very competitive 10-point loss to eventual Pac-12 champ USC. The league’s schedule makers did them no favors, as their next two games were visits to Oregon and Washington, but they returned home and shocked everyone with a #Pac12AfterDark shellacking of at-the-time top 15 team Washington State.
From that point on, it was mostly heartbreak. They got Khalil Tate’d in a 45-44 OT loss to Arizona, lost by 16 at Colorado, beat Oregon State (because everybody did), then lost at Stanford and UCLA by a combined six points— winning either would have pushed them to bowl eligibility.
Key to the late-season renaissance were the exploits of RB Patrick Laird, who went for 727 yards and 4 scores in the final five games.
Last year’s opener in Chapel Hill was the first meeting between Cal and Carolina on the gridiron— and if you’ll remember, Cal won 35-30.
The Heels were up 17-7 late in the second quarter and had the Bears pinned deep on a 3rd-and-forever, with all of the momentum. After forcing a Ross Bowers incompletion, Jalen Dalton made the stupidest play of the 2017 season (non-Chazz Surratt chest pass vs. Duke/Statue of Liberty pass vs. Virginia Tech edition) and hit Bowers with his helmet, getting ejected and giving the Bears a first down.
Wouldn’t you know it— Cal scored on the very next play, took over the momentum, and kept the Heels at bay (not a Northern California pun) to get the victory.
Made famous by the argument that the 2015 Stanford team was better than most because it lost a listless game at Northwestern to start the season, ‘body clocks’ could be a factor in this game. The Heels will travel three timezones and 2,806 miles to California
Faultline Memorial Stadium. The adjustment will be a factor, as Carolina is so used to noon games that the game will kick at least three hours after they’re used to playing.
UNC Offense vs. Cal Defense
The Bears’ hire of Wilcox was the “date the opposite of your ex” philosophical shift— from Air Raid Mike Leach disciple Sonny Dykes to Wisconsin defensive coordinator. It panned out, based on last year’s results. The defense improved from 42.6 points allowed in 2016 to 28.4 in 2017, from 126th in the country to a respectable 68th. S&P+ isn’t quite as kind, as they only improved 28 spots to 79th.
Up front, the Bears lose a lot of depth, but not necessarily a lot of talent. Three of their top four tacklers were senior linebackers in their 3-4 front, though leading tackler Jordan Kunaszyk does return. Former Wake Forest transfer James Looney departs from the DL, but two seniors who were rotation players, junior DE Luc Bequette, and a few young guys whose names I won’t attempt to spell despite looking at them in my Athlon magazine return. Cameron Goode, a sophomore OLB who was starting to emerge into a star before missing the final three games, also returns.
Their defensive backfield returns completely intact, led by sophomore corner Camryn Bynum. The Bears gambled on youth in the secondary, and their defense’s passing S&P+ improved to average— 60th in the country.
For Carolina, the key will be the ability to get yardage on 1st down via the rushing attack. Cal was good at limiting big plays, but ranked 113th in “success rate”, defined as 5+ yard carries. Jordon Brown, Michael Carter, and hopefully a renewed emphasis on the QB run game will be huge.
If the Heels can run, the shot plays will open up somewhat— as will the middle of the field. I would expect Thomas Jackson and Carl Tucker to have opportunities to serve notice that they’re back from their injuries early and often in this game.
This will be a continuous theme in these previews, but being unable to stretch the defense vertically will place a huge emphasis on the run and the quick passing game for the Heels to be successful. With Cal’s limited experience up front, week 1 will be a very good litmus test for this.
Cal Offense vs. UNC Defense
The Bears’ last five games are a perfect script for beating UNC in the Larry Fedora era— run the ball until they prove they can stop you. OC Beau Baldwin, who was a national championship-caliber head coach at Eastern Washington, thrived on a 4-wide system where backs got space to create. Laird’s success is an indicator of that— and the Bears return all five starters from the end of the season’s offensive line.
With Laird, the running game will be more efficient than explosive, but with the receivers they return...that’s all they may need. Vic Wharton led the team with over 800 yards through the air (including 156 against our Heels), and returns. Kanawai Noa, who finished second on the team with almost 800 yards, also returns. As does former 5-star Demetris Robertson, who had 7 catches before being lost for the season in week 2.
Quarterback Ross Bowers, who was the surprise starter as a sophomore, held that title for the season and threw for 3,039 yards, 18 TD’s, and 12 INT. His 363 yards against Carolina were his biggest output of the season, and he now has a year of experience under his belt along with all of his weapons and protectors returning. Despite a drop in offensive S&P+ from 6th to 84th under the new regime, the Bears’ offense stands to improve markedly in year two under Baldwin, Bowers, and Wilcox.
Like I said, this is a rough matchup for Fedora and John Papuchis. Key for the Heels will be getting stuffs or TFLs from Dalton, Aaron Crawford, Jason Strowbridge, and the rest of the defensive line. If Laird is peeling off 4-6 yards at a time on early downs, its going to be a long day. Laird is your prototypical workhorse, really a throwback in today’s game, as he had three games with over 28 carries.
With Wharton roaming the slot (think Ryan Switzer for positive memories or Michael Campanaro for negative ones), the Heels’ LBs and safeties will have to be alert. Forcing Robertson and Noa to beat K.J. Sails and Patrice Rene 1-on-1 doesn’t sound ideal for the Heels, but may be the best bet as they are forced to get the Bears behind the chains.
If Carolina can force some 2nd & 9, 3rd & long situations, Bowers is prone to make mistakes— and given the Heels’ mind-numbing inability to figure out how to stop the run, that’s going to be the best shot to create scoring runs.
Before diving into it, my thought was that the Carolina team that showed up for most of the second quarter in last year’s matchup would be the one to prevail— the return of a cohesive offensive line, a quarterback not gunshy from taking abuse over the course of ACC play, and an overall more talented team spelled road victory for Carolina.
However, looking at the losing streak in P5 openers (which dates back 18 years now), the late emergence of Cal’s running game, and my perceived notion that whomever Carolina trots out at quarterback can’t match Cal’s skill position players blow-for-blow— I don’t see happy results.
Way-too-early leaning: Cal 41, Carolina 33