California is widely regarded as a program currently in a state of disarray. When a school waits until the end of the hiring season to move on from a coach, they generally earn that distinction. Just last year, Carolina benefited from such turnover with a 48-23 win over Illinois.
Sonny Dykes was let go because the athletic department didn’t see him as committed to remaining in Northern California long-term. He had long been tied to jobs in his native Texas and the Southeast at large, and it was finally determined he wasn’t a cultural fit.
Enter Justin Wilcox. Wilcox spent 2016 as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, and his unit finished 7th in the nation in S&P+. He took over at Wisconsin for Dave Aranda, who is still running the defense at LSU, and maintained the status quo for the Badgers. An Oregon alum, Wilcox has more ties to the Pac-12 than Dykes ever did, and that may bode well for the program’s long-term stability. It probably won’t help as much when the Bears visit Kenan Stadium on September 2nd.
Despite Wilcox’s defensive background, Cal will probably be facing a serious rebuild on that side of the ball—they ranked 127th in the country in scoring defense last year. Run or pass, it didn’t matter; they allowed 273 yards per game (6.2 YPC!) on the ground, 245 through the air. While they return eight starters, they are also shifting to Wilcox’s preferred 3-4. That switch usually produces horrific initial results as personnel doesn’t fit scheme in year one.
The offense will be asked to carry the load, and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin was a tremendous hire to do just that. Baldwin was wildly successful as head coach at Eastern Washington, as his teams regularly put up great numbers against even P5 competition.
Beau Baldwin vs. Pac-12, last 6 years— Avinash Kunnath (@avinashkunnath) January 16, 2017
2011 L UW 30-27
2012 L WSU 24-20
2013 W OSU 49-46
2014 L UW 59-52
2015 L Oregon 61-42
2016 W WSU 45-42
Baldwin fits very well what Dykes did—get the ball from the quarterback to playmakers in space, run tempo, and try to outscore opponents.
It is always fascinating to see the interplay of defensive head coach/guru offensive coordinator (or vice versa). Even at UNC, we saw a slowdown in Carolina’s offensive tempo to protect Gene Chizik’s conservative Cover-2 approach. If Wilcox’s defense can improve at all over 2016, Cal could look better than expected, but reaching a bowl game with a BRUTAL Pac-12 slate is probably not in the cards.
Jared Goff famously led an explosive Cal passing attack for Dykes’ first three years. Grad transfer Davis Webb was excellent in 2016. Both of those guys are gone, and Cal starts from scratch at quarterback. They featured two running backs last year, and senior Tre Watson’s 709 yards and four TD’s return.
Their receiving corps is the most interesting part of the team. They do lose last year’s leader Chad Hansen (92 rec, 1249 yards, 11 TD last year), but return seven guys who caught at least 15 passes, five who caught at least 21.
The offensive line replaces both tackles and a guard, two of whom were four-year starters. Ouch.
Phil Steele is as bullish on the Bears’ front seven as one can be, saying “they’re full of upperclassmen experience, which should result in a significant increase in production.” Sure enough, they return five starters, including end-turned-linebacker Cameron Saffle, which brings back memories of Carolina’s ill-fated experiment with the ‘Bandit’ position.
The secondary has OUTSTANDING names—Darius Allensworth and Marloshawn Franklin, Jr. are listed as starters on the depth chart. Both were full-time starters last year. They also return a safety, Alan Rambo (again, the names), who missed all but two games last year.
If the defensive front can improve (it has to some, you’d think), the defense as a whole should be a far cry better than it was last year. They have experience at all three levels, and the whole ‘talent vs. experience vs. scheme’ tug-of-war will determine how much they improve.
Players to Watch
- WR Demetris Robertson: Robertson famously exhibited some agency in selecting a college, taking his recruitment (as a five-star receiver out of Savannah, GA) well past Signing Day. That Cal was his ultimate destination is a bit of a surprise, but here we are. Robertson was inconsistent with his production in 2016, but emerged late with consecutive games of 92, 82, and 141 yards against USC, Washington, and Washington State. He’ll be a handful for the Carolina secondary, and focus on him could open up opportunities for his teammates.
- DE James Looney: Looney started his career at Wake Forest but did not make an impact. Last year, he registered eight TFL and 54.5 tackles, which would have to qualify as God-like on that defense.
- LB Devante Downs: The anchor of the middle of Cal’s defense, he’ll likely be tasked with aligning the defense as well as improving on his 84 tackles from a year ago.
- RB Tre Watson: With nothing in the way of meaningful experience for Cal’s quarterbacks, it will be interesting to see if Baldwin leans on his most experienced ball handler early in the season. As evidenced by his 241 receiving yards, he is versatile, and back-to-back midseason performances of 154 (Oregon State) and 134 (Oregon) rushing yards show he can be relied upon as a featured back.
Never knowing what to expect from a Week 1 opponent with a new coach and new quarterback, a quick guess would say this Bears team looks a lot like the 2014 Tar Heels. Maybe a little better on defense, a little worse on offense, but a competitive yet frustrating bunch.
They likely have the firepower and scheme to hang 30-35 points on the Heels, but even with all of the new personnel on Carolina’s offense I can’t see them getting enough stops to keep up.
A couple of big breaks for Cal would make this game a scary opener, but I’ll call it 52-34 Heels to start the season.
Though these programs have never played, this is part one of a home-and-home that concludes in Berkeley next year. A Labor Day trip to Wine Country isn’t a fun fact, but perhaps an opportunity to travel 3,000 miles to support the Tar Heels in 2018.