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the Gekko Files: California 2014 Preview

Next stop on the Gekko File train is Berkeley and a deep-dive into Cal's 2014 prospects. Chin up, I know you can "bear" it.

Season one was a bugger for Coach Dykes and his Bad News Bears.
Season one was a bugger for Coach Dykes and his Bad News Bears.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

For Cal, the arrival of Sonny Dykes in 2014 was supposed to be the big reboot for a school that knows a thing or two about what it takes to effectively debug a program.  Things, unfortunately, did not go as planned for Coach Dykes and instead of the "big reboot", it was AD Sandy Barbour "getting the boot".  Now the son of the venerable Spike Dykes - the famous Texas Tech coach - finds himself inching his way on to the hot seat just one season into his regime.

Could Sonny possibly pull a rabbit out of his hat and lead the Cal Bears back to respectability in 2014?  I don't know, but I bet it's in the file.

2013 Recap - What I Said

I admit, I was a little more optimistic than maybe I deserved to be.  Here are the facts:

Predicted Div Finish 4th
Actual Div Finish 6th
Predicted P12 Record 4-5
Actual P12 Record 0-9

Yeah.  Not looking too good.  Apparently, after falling flat on my face in projecting the acclimation of both Rich Rod and Todd Graham into the P12, I got a bit gun-shy.  Here was what I actually said.

Last year, I made the mistake of underestimating both Arizona and Arizona State because of what I perceived to be a "long learning curve" for each team in adapting to the new offensive philosophies of both RichRod and Todd Graham, respectively. I won't make that mistake again. Especially with a Cal team that features skill pieces that seem to fit perfectly with Dykes' scheme...
I'm once again bullish on the Bears. While four is more likley, I don't see why five wins isn't possible in conference.

As you all well know, Dykes's introduction into the Pac did not go as nicely as did those of the new Arizona coaches the year previous.  In fact, when you consider that the highlight of the entire season was a come-from-behind win at home against Portland State then, well, you get a sense of just how far the fall for the Golden Bears was once the bottom fell out.

The season never really got off to a good start considering the painful divorce that the program had with Jeff Tedford which, as many people well know, followed yet another bottom-of-the-conference performance in APR for a Cal program that prioritizes the "student" element of student/athlete moreso than your typical state school.  Once things got going on the field, controversies around the QB competition and the direction of the D under then DC Andy Buh occupied the minds of many Cal fans.  The tension was palpable at exactly the time when optimism should be reigning supreme.  Still, there was talent on that roster - in particular on the offensive side of the ball - and nobody saw coming what actually came to pass.

A loss to a ranked Northwestern team - a team that turned out to be not very good - was viewed as "respectable", especially with true frosh Jared Goff making his first appearance in a college game.  The aforementioned Portland State game in week 2 started the worry-meter running.  A murderer's row of back-to-back affairs against Ohio State and Oregon resulted in the Bears getting lit up to the tune of over 100 points surrendered and the physical status of the team becoming significantly compromised just as the P12 conference schedule was getting going.

You all know how it ended.

The Bears would go on to have one of the worst seasons in program history - and we are talking about a program that was once under the care of Tom Holmoe.  Of course, they went winless in the Pac and looked bad doing so.  There was not a single game where they failed to surrender less than 30 points and, in fact, there were only three in which they were able to prevent the competition from clearing 40 points.  Not adjusted for strength of schedule, Cal had the second worst defense in all of college football.  This was somewhat offset by their offense which was probably better than most casual observers would guess but still not anywhere resembling "good".

It was a disaster of season born from a variety of factors:  coaching overhaul, difficult schedule, injuries and the general state of unreadiness that certain key players were in when called upon to contribute.  The question now is whether or not 2014 holds better fortune.

Previewing 2014:  The Golden Bears

Most coaches will tell you that outside the tried and true elements of player development and fundamentals instruction, the key to implementing a turnaround is to establish a team's identity such that the collective hat can get hung upon it.  Most enterprises work in a similar way.  You discover what you think you are best at - no matter where that rates relative to others - and you start building around that strength.

For Cal, their strength is rooted in the depth of their receiving corps and the potential of their young QB.  So, we'll start our preview with the Cal passing game.

Jared Goff arrived to Cal as a highly touted recruit who was to do battle with another highly touted recruit, Zach Kline, in a quest to start at QB.  From the start, the competition favored Goff as Dykes seemed to struggle in figuring out what to do with the pro-style skill set of Kline.  This  year, Goff is the future of the program.  He's a gutsy QB who has a decent enough arm and the requisite mobility to run Dykes's offense.  He did average 292 yards a game last season.  However, he was horribly inefficient in the red zone indicating that he really struggled with both his reading of defenses and his decision making.  The good news for Cal fans is that these issues are more a matter of coaching then physical ability.  Assuming he gets time to throw, Goff has a bevy of talented receivers to throw to including Bryce Treggs, Kenny Lawler and Chris Harper.  Harper and Treggs both had 70 catches last year and have demonstrated an ability to hold their own against P12 DBs.  JR Darius Powe - a big receiver - adds a size dimension to Dykes's attack that compensates for the lack of a true TE in their scheme.

The ability of the Cal O-Line to keep Goff upright in this pass heavy attack is a critical issue.  They were not really good last season but, when adjusted for their style of offense and the strength of their schedule, they were better than you would guess.  In fact, statistically speaking, they were about at the level of schools like USC and ASU from a pass blocking perspective.  The key for them is their interior where their best players are.  In 2014, Jordan Rigsbee goes back to his OG position after serving as a C replacement for Chris Adcock.  The return to form of a health by Cal's senior leader is a critical element to in the rebuilding of their young O-Line.

Contrary to popular belief, Cal wants to be a running team.  The Bears running backs unit has some talented players like speedster SO Khalfani Muhammad and JR Daniel Lasco.  Muhammad, in particular, has great potential as a number one kind of guy and could step up to provide the balance in his offensive attack that Dykes boasted about when he came over from Louisiana Tech.

Defensively, the Bears third DC in three years, Art Kaufman, inherits a veritable dumpster fire.  This is a unit that is young, not as talented as you would expect and completely demoralized.  Kaufman is committed to maintaining a 4-3 focused approach, but is expected to be more versatile in how it is applied.  If there are any silver linings, he does have a few pieces to work with up the middle.  If Mustafa Jalil is healthy, he can help anchor an interior that will have to endure the losses of Viliami Moala and Deandre Coleman.  The contributions from the d-ends are critical in Kaufman's scheme given the utilization of stunts and other forms of trickery used to create mismatches.  If Brennan Scarlett is healthy, he can be an effective player in this scheme.  Behind him, the Bears have most of their back seven returning.  While there is some hope around players like LB Hardy Nickerson, DB Cameron Walker and DB Stefan McClure, there are a lot of names left to match to open boxes for the new defensive staff.

Three Questions and a Comment:  The Cal Golden Blogs Staff

1.  How will Bear fans measure success in 2014?

Nick Kranz: I suppose the lazy answer might be bowl eligibility, but a 5 win jump might be asking too much. Instead, for the Nth straight season, one of the key measuring sticks will be 'no blowouts.' Of Cal's 11 losses last year, approximately two or three games were competitive. When things get so bad, progress might be defined by losing in a less disheartening manner.

Nam Le: If they can snag 5 wins then I'd almost certainly consider it a success, considering where the program has been recently. I'm expecting blowouts to happen, with this still being a young team growing into its own under Coach Dykes, so the only reason why I might see 5 wins as unacceptable is if the team charges out of the gate and is far better than anyone expects, only to fall flat on their face afterward.

Leland Wong: As always, there's a mix of fans who will deem 2014 a success based on a range of outcomes, from bowl eligibility to Dykes's firing. (But how sad is it that bowl eligibility is on the optimistic extreme of things?) Reasonably, I don't see that many wins next year; success will be measured by academic turnaround, the emergence of a run game and a balanced offense, and fewer blowouts.

2.  Why did we see so many early entries declare out of Cal in 2013 and what is the impact to 2014?

Nick Kranz:  Some guys might have been academic casualties. Others weren't going to get much playing time. Some probably just didn't have fun. Really, only a couple of the guys will be huge losses. Richard Rodgers was the only guy drafted in the top half of the draft, and he was certainly an above average Pac-12 tight end. Viliami Moala would have started at DT. Beyond that, Cal didn't really lose a ton of significant contributors . . . to the extent that a 1-11 team HAS significant contributors.

Leland Wong: It's hard to know just why player leaves. Generally, the student-athletes seem to like the coaches, but maybe these players clashed with them. Maybe they didn't foresee success in the next year for Cal and were tired of losing. Maybe they struggled with the academics. Maybe this is step 3 or 7 in their plan for world domination. The only player who discussed leaving early for the NFL was Richard Rodgers, who attributed it to the loss of the tight end position in the offense, which is a perfectly valid concern. These departures will probably have the biggest impact in the defensive line, where Viliami Moala's experience and much-heralded potential could have helped anchor and lead the defensive line.

3.  What is the one upset game that Cal fans have circled and why?

Nick Kranz: It would probably have to be a home game, and Cal almost certainly isn't going to be upsetting teams like UCLA, Oregon or Stanford. That leaves Colorado, Washington and BYU. Does beating Colorado at home count as an upset? Jeez, maybe we have fallen that far.

Frankly, I don't think Cal fans collectively have a game like that circled, other than a ravenous and likely unrealistic desire to beat Stanford. But an early road upset over Arizona or Washington State would go a long way towards building up the confidence of a team that was largely shattered by early season struggles last year.

Nam Le: You'd be hardpressed to find anyone thinking there's upsets of any kind this year, but I would say Northwestern, probably. This is a big statement game for the Bears -- I think they come out motivated to avenge a game they had lost by questionable means, and eager to immediately clear the bad feelings lingering around 1-11. Throw in an offensive passing attack that should be even more lethal this time around, and a defensive coordinator who doesn't look like he'd be overmatched coaching against Pee Wee Leaguers, and you have at least a puncher's chance.

Leland Wong: If we're ever the underdog against the lowly Stanfurd Cardinal, then Bears will always have that game circled on our calendars. In my opinion, Nick, we're currently considered underdogs to Colorado, so I think a lot of fans are looking forward to that game just because it presents our best chance for an FBS win.

The best that can be said about Cal Football in 2014 is  ...

Nick Kranz: ...the team improved its academic standing. There wasn't really anything to crow about on the field, but at least Sonny Dykes took a big first step towards fixing the academic mess that Jeff Tedford left behind. The jury is very much still out on Dykes long term as a football coach, but fans have been pretty pleased with how he has handled matters off the field

Leland Wong: ... that we should have a very special and very deep group of receivers. If we can develop some kind of rushing attack, then the potential is there for this offense to be quite dangerous.

Predicting 2014:  The California Golden Bears.

Cal is going to have a difficult 2014.  I do think that there is some reason to believe that they will be better than last year.  The talent on offense could well come together if Goff can take a big step forward in his development.  If they can manage to put up 35-40 points a game in the Pac, they have a decent chance at pulling out some victories.  I don't think that this is necessarily unrealistic given Dykes's history and the presence of guys like Muhammad, Lasco, Treggs, and Harper on the field. However, the flip side of this is that Kaufman is going to have to scheme over the weaknesses that he has all over his defense and hope that he can catch some breaks when it comes to third down stops and turnovers.  It might be a lot to ask.

The Cal schedule, which was arguably the most brutal in the Pac last year, is much more manageable this time around.  The OOC features weaker-than-normal BYU and Northwestern along with the ever-present Sacramento State.  The Pac 12 schedule includes just four road games two of which - @ WSU and @ Oregon State - are games where they may have a puncher's chance.  A three game home stretch versus Washington, UCLA and Oregon will be a defining segment for Cal's season.

Summed up, things still look bleak for Cal in a division that has a lot of teams on the rise.  It is hard to tally up, with confidence, more than a a single conference win on this schedule, though the Bears could well win out in the OOC.  If this all comes to pass and Bears top out at 4 wins, it may not be enough to get Sonny Dykes to season three.