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Cal can progress in Justin Wilcox’s first year, but look at this damn schedule

Wins will likely have to wait until 2018, no matter how much the Golden Bears improve in 2017.

Utah v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This preview originally published May 31 and has since been updated.

The effects of the air raid offense are obvious. Teams that employ this style define the game in a specific way, force you to make open-field tackles (often for 80-plus snaps), and wear your linemen down by forcing them to attack the quarterback from large splits.

The defense gets tired, and the offense feels pressure to keep up on the scoreboard without making too many mistakes. It’s doable, obviously — no air raid coach has won a national title, after all — but for coaches with harder jobs, being able to define the game is awfully appealing.

The system also works. Or at least, it can.

  • Art Briles converted Baylor from doormat to conference champion with his version.
  • Mike Leach has taken teams to 13 bowls in 15 years.
  • Dana Holgorsen has a couple of 10-win seasons at West Virginia.
  • Kevin Sumlin (a strong recruiter) has won fewer than eight games just once in eight years as a head coach.
  • Air raid father Hal Mumme rode the system to two bowls at Kentucky when the school had been through a mostly destitute 15 years.

There’s another appeal, at least in hindsight: it’s hard to replace your system with something else.

  • In replacing two air raid coaches (first Mumme, then Guy Morriss) at Kentucky, Rich Brooks won nine games in three years before building traction. (NCAA sanctions didn’t help.)
  • In succeeding Briles and Sumlin at Houston, Tony Levine went 5-7 in his first year and couldn’t top 8-5 before getting dismissed.
  • After Sonny Dykes went 17-8 in his final two years at Louisiana Tech, Skip Holtz dealt with a 4-8 reset when Dykes went to Cal.
  • Ruffin McNeill won between five and eight games for most of his tenure at ECU, which was deemed unacceptable; afterward, Scottie Montgomery went 3-9 in his first year.
  • After ranking in the S&P+ top 30 for five straight years before Leach got fired, Texas Tech fell to 60th and 86th in its first two years under Tommy Tuberville.

Is this purely anecdotal? Of course. But it makes some sense that a stark culture change could create issues, especially if a defense-first coach is taking over a let-’er-rip system. Tuberville, for instance, tried to install defensive principles while maintaining the attack that fans loved, and it was never a natural fit.

That Cal and Dykes parted wasn’t surprising. Dykes’ performance didn’t earn him a dismissal — the Bears won eight games in 2015, and the step back to 5-7 in 2016 was predictable, considering the massive turnover. But his constant flirtation with other schools and his apparent disinterest in finding a new defensive coordinator eventually got him pushed out. I say “eventually” because while the move wasn’t completely unexpected, it came late in the 2016-17 carousel.

Regardless, the school found a suitable replacement on paper. Wilcox played defensive back at Oregon, got his breakthrough under Jeff Tedford at Cal, and has spent 13 of his 16 years as a coach either in the Pac-12 or at Boise State. He knows the West, and in his 11 years as a coordinator, has produced five top-25 Def. S&P+ rankings.

Good defense has become a foreign concept in Berkeley. Wilcox takes over a team that, over the last three seasons, averaged rankings of 12th in Off. S&P+ and 101st in Def. S&P+. Though air raid teams can play decent defense, that was never the case for Dykes. Wilcox has never had a defense that ranked worse than 54th, so something will have to give.

Wilcox is trying his best to avoid a Year Zero situation; his hire of 3-4 guru Deruyter made plenty of sense, considering Wilcox’s 3-4 roots, but he also brought in former Eastern Washington head coach Baldwin to coordinate the offense.

Though technically not a branch on the air raid tree, Baldwin’s EWU teams were prolific and successful. In total yardage, Baldwin’s last four EWU teams had an average ranking of fourth in FCS on offense and 101st on defense. They won at least 11 games three times in that span and four times overall.

There’s nothing saying the balance can’t work, but pulling off a successful first year could be tricky. Baldwin’s first Cal offense will be without last year’s starting quarterback, leading rusher, leading receiver, and five linemen who combined for 120 career starts. There’s far more continuity on defense, for better or worse, but the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 can be awkward if the size balance isn’t right.

There’s enough talent to think Cal can eke out a minor bowl bid, but I’ll withhold expectations until year two.

NCAA Football: Akron at Wisconsin
Justin Wilcox
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

2016 in review

2016 Cal statistical profile.

Cal was projected to win five games in 2016 and did so, but the way the season began, it felt like more was possible. Grad transfer Davis Webb did a decent enough job of replacing top NFL draft pick Jared Goff, and five games in, the Bears were 3-2 with a couple of nice home wins (Texas, Utah) and respectable road losses (San Diego State, pre-collapse Arizona State).

A frustrating road loss to Oregon State, however, signaled a turn, and after a shootout win over Oregon, Cal faltered.

  • First 5 games (3-2): Avg. percentile performance: 74% (~top 35) | Avg. yards per play: Cal 6.8, Opp 5.9 (plus-0.9) | Avg. score: Cal 42, Opp 39
  • Next 6 games (1-5): Avg. percentile performance: 40% (~top 75) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.7, Cal 5.5 (minus-2.2) | Avg. score: Opp 51, Cal 33

The offense failed to produce as many big plays, and with attrition in the secondary, the defense fell apart. The Bears rebounded to pound a faltering UCLA in the season finale, but the damage was done. And while it looked like Dykes would survive, about six weeks after the season ended, he did not.


Cal offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The air raid is built on avoiding negative plays, getting the ball out of the QB’s hands quickly, and cranking out efficient gains until defenses take risks.

The same can be said for a Baldwin offense. In 2016, EWU threw more than 60 percent of the time, took sacks on just 3.7 percent of attempts (more than Cal, but not that much more) and completed 68 percent of its passes. Granted, the Eagles had the best receiver in FCS on their side — Cooper Kupp, who caught 117 passes for 1,700 yards and posted 12 for 206 against Washington State in the season opener — but this was an offense similar to Dykes’.

There are reasons to worry about turnover on offense; Webb threw 620 of Cal’s 621 passes (the other was thrown by the punter) and is gone. So are Chad Hansen (1,249 receiving yards), Khalfani Muhammad (959 combined rushing and receiving yards), four-year starting tackle Steven Moore, and two other stalwarts on the line [update: make that one, as starting guard Dwayne Wallace has been dismissed]. Your leading active career passer is Chase Forrest, who completed 10 balls two years ago.

Still, Dykes left Baldwin some presents. After a slow start (seven catches in his first three games), five-star Demetris Robinson finished his freshman year with 50 catches and four 90-yard receiving games. Another freshman, four-star Melquise Stovall, caught 42 balls as the No. 3 target.

Three other returning wideouts caught at least 15 passes, so the cupboard is in no way bare. Plus, backup running back Tre Watson wasn’t really a backup to Muhammad — he carried only nine fewer times, and while he was less explosive, he had better rush efficiency numbers and caught 21 of 24 passes for 241 yards. He is a custom-made back for a pass-first system. Meanwhile, 245-pound Vic Enwere was actually Cal’s most explosive back as the No. 3 guy.

California v USC
Tre Watson
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The leaders are gone, but there’s still plenty of depth at the skill positions. The quarterback will likely be either Forrest or sophomore Ross Bowers, a mid-three-star recruit from Washington. This is a QB-friendly system, and one assumes that the winner of the starting gig will be fine.

Really, with the splits and quick passing, this is a line-friendly system, too. Center Addison Ooms is back after starting every game, but at the end of spring ball, the new pass protectors at tackle were Patrick Mekari and Jake Curhan. Mekari is a junior with three starts to his name; Curhan is a redshirt freshman. The experience level up front is down quite a bit.

Cal hasn’t ranked outside of the Off. S&P+ top 20 since 2013, Dykes’ first year. Baldwin has plenty of skill guys to utilize, and his system could dampen the turnover. Still, another top-20 performance might be a little too much to ask for. If the Bears hit the top 35, that’s a win.

NCAA Football: California at Arizona State
Melquise Stovall
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports


Cal defensive radar

Cal’s defense ranked 66th in yards per completion last year. Per the radar chart above, that was the Bears’ biggest “strength.” They were 85th in Passing S&P+ and 116th in Rushing S&P+. They had almost no disruptive presence (122nd in havoc rate) but weren’t good enough at big-play prevention to claim a bend-don’t-break approach.

Cal defensive efficiency and explosiveness

The secondary was supposed to be a relative strength, and I guess it was. But injuries assured that this unit was never what it could be. Safety Damariay Drew was lost for the season with injury in August, and while a whopping 15 DBs ended up averaging at least one tackle per game (the sign of an at least semi-regular contributor), only five played in all 12 games. Top cornerback Darius Allensworth played in six games, top safety Luke Rebenzer in nine.

But hey, last year’s injuries are this year’s depth. Thirteen of those 15 DBs are back, so DeRuyter at least has options.

Allensworth (12 passes defensed in 2015), Rubenzer, and other seniors like corner Marloshawn Franklin Jr. are back to provide some level of veteran leadership to the group, while sophomores like safeties Jaylinn Hawkins (a former four-star recruit) and Evan Rambo and corners Josh Drayden, Traveon Beck, and Ashtyn Davis) should assure the competition level remains high. Freshmen Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks made some noise this spring as well.

NCAA Football: Stanford at California
Marloshawn Franklin Jr. (18)
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

With fewer injuries, the secondary could be decent.

The front seven, however, is quite a few steps from decent. It absorbed a lot of turnover before 2016 and didn’t fare well, and now comes the move to a 3-4.

If this move goes poorly, it’s usually because the new defense doesn’t have the right size. Likely starting nose guard Tony Mekari is listed at 295 pounds, lower than you’d like, but size at end is fine, with likely starting ends James Looney and Zeandae Johnson hitting 280 pounds.

Looney and Mekari showed play-making potential, combining for 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, but their main job now will be filling gaps and occupying blockers for a linebacking corps that is seasoned but unproven. Junior Cameron Saffle (8.5 TFLs, four sacks, four breakups) should take to the OLB position nicely, but only one other linebacker recorded more than 1.5 TFLs, and DeRuyter might have to turn to a youngster like sophomore Russell Ude, redshirt freshman Cameron Goode, or JUCO transfer Alex Funches to provide some play-making.

NCAA Football: California at San Diego State
James Looney (9)
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Defense always appeared to be an afterthought for Dykes. That won’t be the case with a successful defensive coordinator now running the show, but it remains a mystery how quickly Wilcox and DeRuyter can find traction.

It’s also a mystery what DeRuyter will do now that he’s back in the coordinator chair. He was a successful DC at Air Force and Texas A&M, but he lost the plot as Fresno State head coach; after ranking 38th in Def. S&P+ in 2012, none of his last four FS defenses topped 82nd.

Special Teams

This transition could go in a couple of directions, but at least Wilcox inherits decent legs. Matt Anderson was 33rd in field goal efficiency, nailing 94 percent of his sub-40 field goals and six of nine longer ones as well. Plus, Dylan Klumph is one of the league’s better punters if punting suddenly becomes more of a thing in Berkeley.

The return game is questionable, and kickoffs are an unknown, but place-kicking and punting are the most important parts of a good special teams unit, and Cal’s got those covered.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at North Carolina 38 -5.5 37%
9-Sep Weber State NR 27.6 94%
16-Sep Ole Miss 26 -4.8 39%
23-Sep USC 7 -16.0 18%
30-Sep at Oregon 23 -10.7 27%
7-Oct at Washington 13 -17.1 16%
13-Oct Washington State 40 -0.2 50%
21-Oct Arizona 68 4.4 60%
28-Oct at Colorado 50 -3.2 43%
4-Nov Oregon State 54 2.4 55%
18-Nov at Stanford 12 -17.5 16%
24-Nov at UCLA 34 -6.5 35%
Projected S&P+ Rk 55
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 25 / 90
Projected wins 4.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 2.0 (60)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 53 / 44
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / -4.3
2016 TO Luck/Game +3.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 58% (38%, 78%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.7 (-0.7)

When you inherit a team that’s been really good on one side and really bad on the other, the transition can be difficult. In Cal’s case, the offense has nowhere to go but down, even with a nice coordinator hire ... and to maintain a near-.500 pace, the new defensive staff will have to engineer quality the Cal D hasn’t seen in a while.

Maybe new input and new tactics give the defense the shot in the arm it’s been dying for. The secondary could be solid, and the front seven can’t be worse. And maybe Baldwin finds everything he needs on offense in this exciting skill corps.

Even if Cal exceeds its No. 55 projected S&P+ ranking, though — let’s say the Bears get into the top 35 — damn, look at that schedule.

  • At North Carolina, at Oregon, at Washington, at Colorado, at Stanford, at UCLA.
  • Ole Miss, USC, Washington State, Arizona, and Oregon State at home.
  • Seven games with win probability between 35 and 60 percent with one above that and four below.

This is not the schedule for first-year success. So for Wilcox, the goal is just to make things interesting. Show that the offensive ceiling is as high as it has been and show that defensive competence is around the corner. Build for 2018 and hope you win enough of the close games to keep fans engaged.

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