The Cal Bears are entering a new era in the history of their football program. Cal fans see potential under the leadership of their new head coach Sonny Dykes. Dykes comes in with a resume of turning around stale programs and invigorating them with a high octane offensive scheme, that puts up yards and points at a dizzying pace.
Last season, Dykes led Louisiana Tech to it’s highest ever ranking in the Associated Press’s top-25 poll. Louisiana Tech finished with a 9 – 3 record and was the 19th best team in the nation according to the AP. They finished as the number one scoring offense with an average of 51.5 points per game. Those points were put up by a truly prolific offense that finished third in the nation in passing with 350.8 yards per game and 16th in the nation in rushing with 227.2 yards per game, which combined for a nation leading 577.9 total offensive yards per game.
These numbers have Cal fans drooling at the potential high flying offense, especially compared to the offensive display put on the last few years under Jeff Tedford. They want to see if Dykes’s offensive scheme will exploded with a much higher caliber of player that flood the Cal football roster. The fan base has high hopes of jumping from the bottom of the Pac-12 to becoming a bowl contender in just a single offseason. Realistically, can Cal bounce back and go bowling this holiday season?
Recently, Golden Gate Sports has posted a couple stories that breakdown the Cal Bears’ schedule. First, there was an article by me doing a game by game prediction of their schedule. Shortly after, Samuel Charles wrote an excellent piece that covered the difficulty of the Bears’ schedule. The initial take away from those two articles is that Cal will have a rough time trying to make a post-season bowl game.
The major reason for this is how many ranked teams that Cal must face, especially early on in the season. Cal’s true test is the fact that they face three of the top four teams in the nation. In back to back weeks, the Bears face #4 Ohio State and #3 Oregon. They then end the season with their hated rivals #4 Stanford Cardinal. All three teams are legitimate contenders to end the SEC’s stranglehold on the BCS championship.
The Bears do not get a break in the meat of their schedule either. They kick off the season with the Northwestern Wildcats, who are ranked 22nd in the AP’s preseason poll. They then face majority of the toughest teams in the Pac-12. They travel to #21 UCLA during week three of conference play and then come how to face off with #25 Oregon State at home the following week. In week 10, the Bears face off with their rivals from the south #24 USC. Cal will also have to face Arizona and Washington, as both teams figure to challenge in their respective divisions of the Pac-12.
Cal gets very few reprieves throughout the season, as they will be challenged each and every week. It is a tough task for a young team with a new head coach, who is bringing in a vastly different offensive playbook. There will be some growing pains for this team, but the sooner they can gel together the better their chance at surprising some teams later in the season.
During my breakdown of their schedule, I noticed five games that I would consider to be “swing games.” These “swing games” are games that could be realistically given to either team, with no team be a true favorite. These games are week one against Northwestern and weeks six through nine with UCLA, Oregon State, Washington, and Arizona. In my prediction article, I had the Bears going 2 – 3 in these five games, as the Bears finished 5 – 7 and just a single game shy of being bowl eligible.
It will most likely take at least seven or eight wins to take one of the seven bowl tie-ins for the Pac-12. Last year, eight teams in the Pac-12 finished with seven or more wins and no team looks to be taking a real step back. The Bears would need to win most or all of these “swing games” to make it to seven or eight wins. The toughest test would be the opener with Northwestern, as this will be the first true game situation for this new offensive scheme, that will feature an inexperienced signal caller. The Wildcats are an experienced group that returns a number of starters on both sides of the ball, which could edge out the Bears in a close contest. The one edge the Bears hold is that the game will be played at home.
The other games are much more winnable, as they come in the middle of the season and could have the Bears finally gelling as a team. The two road games at UCLA and Washington are where I had Cal falling, but if they can handle the pressure away from home then they should challenge for those two games. Also, the Bears should be able to take care of business at home against Oregon State and Arizona.
Best case scenario for Cal would be a 7 – 5 season with an appearance at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl or the New Mexico Bowl. Realistically, I am sticking with my prediction of five wins and they are on the outside looking in at bowl eligibility. The worst case scenario would another three win season with wins over lowly Portland State, Washington State, and Colorado.
The Golden Bears have a few chances to shock the Pac-12 and sneak into a bowl game. It will take a great coaching job by Dykes and his staff to get this team clicking quickly and prepared for the gauntlet that is their schedule.