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the Gekko Files: Cal Golden Bears 2015 Football Preveiw

There may not be a fan base outside of Eugene ... or Pullman ... or Corvallis that hates UW as much as Cal fans do. I'm sure we'll hear all about it as they absorb the greatness of this Gekko File update.

Chin up, Sonny!  Things are looking brighter for Cal Football in 2015.
Chin up, Sonny! Things are looking brighter for Cal Football in 2015.
Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Marilyn Monroe once said,

Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.

Ladies and gents, I present to you the California Golden Bears.   If Marilyn were a college football fan, I bet she would have liked the Bears. Name another team that can one week lose a game it once led by 28 points (on a hail Mary, no less) and then go and win a game two weeks later in which the opposing QB sets the NCAA record for passing yards and then lose yet another game in which its high-powered offense manages just seven measly points.  Imperfect?  Why, yes.  Mad?  Some would argue that offense is, indeed.  Absolutely ridiculous?  There were a few of those games last year (are we friends again, Cal fans?)

Despite the pain and failure of last season, Cal emerged as a team on an impressive growth trajectory - going from zero BCS wins to four is pretty good. The offense matured in Sonny Dykes's second season even while the defense struggled to absorb the new scheme installed by DC Art Kaufman.  Will 2015 continue that same trajectory?  Will Cal's offense be another Marilyn Monroe?  Can Cal's defense at least go from this:

to this...

Will Cal Golden Blogs readers ever make peace with yours truly and allow me the opportunity to visit Berkeley without the precaution of having to wear a Kevlar vest?

You don't know?  Do not fret.  The Gekko has it all right here.

2014 Recap - What I Said

Predicted Div Finish 6th
Actual Div Finish 4th
Predicted P12 Record 1-8
Actual P12 Record 3-6

Here were some of my verbatims:

For Cal, their strength is rooted in the depth of their receiving corps and the potential of their young QB....

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 ....

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...

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...

Cal beat my predictions for them by two games in 2014.  While I had forecasted their strengths pretty well and I was dead-on in my assessment of their defense, I failed to recognize just how quickly Jared Goff would rise up the learning curve or how well Daniel Lasco would fare at running back.  Even though we were all surprised by the fact that Dykes opened up the season splitting snaps between Goff and backup Luke Rubenzer, it was clear early on that this was going to be Goff's team.  In fact, Goff ran off six straight games of passing over 300 yards before falling into a bit of an end-of-season slump.  He was exquisite in spreading the ball out, passing in tempo and (surprise) executing in the red zone.  The Bears scored TDs on 73% of their trips inside the twenty - good for second in the conference behind USC.

Despite Goff's heroics, the Cal defense was epically bad and gave back just about every gain that the offense earned.  At 40 points per game, the Cal D was 123rd of 128 teams in scoring defense.  When you look at the advanced stats, you see that Cal's rush D was a bit more respectable, but their final S&P rating was still 97th out of 128 teams.  Thanks in large part to the generosity of that beleaguered Cal D, Cal fans had to endure a number of heart-wrenching games.  In one three game stretch, they lost to Arizona 49-45 on a hail Mary, beat Colorado 59-56 in a 2OT circus, and won again in Pullman in a 60-59 shootout that saw WSU QB Connor Halliday set an NCAA record with 734 yards passing to go along with 6 TDs.

Cal struggled through the year, but was able to put themselves in a position to get bowl eligible with a win in their last game - a makeup game against BYU.  Unfortunately, Cal would not pull it off as their defense would once again allow lyet another opposing QB carve them up to the tune of 435 yards and 5 TD passes en route to a 42-35 defeat.  The loss was Cal's sixth in their last seven and was the final blow in the derailment of a bowl campaign that had started so well after Cal had won four of their first five.

Previewing 2015: The Cal Bears

The Offense
Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Tony Franklin QB Play
WR Depth
OL Play
QB Jared Goff
RB Daniel Lasco
WR Kenny Lawler

RB Lonny Powell
WR Jaylin Hawkins

Jared Goff is probably the top returning QB in the PAC this season. Will this be his last year in Berekely?

Say what you want about Sonny Dykes and his OC Tony Franklin.  But you can't deny that offense has been reborn in Cal.  As the Bears go into their third season under the Bear Raid, it isn't hard to imagine records getting shattered in Berkeley this year.

We'll get to their QB soon enough.  However, if records do go down, it will be attributable to the addition of running back production to what has to date been mostly a passing offense.  Senior Daniel Lasco is the unquestioned star of the show and a known commodity to PAC.  The slasher ran for another 1000 yard season in 2014 and put up 12 TDs.  In 2015, he'll be part of a much more complete corps of runners that should give Cal both depth and diversity.  Players like Vic Enwere, Khalfani Muhammad and Tre Watson are all legit PAC 12 rushers who bring something unique to the table.  True Freshman Lonny Powell also figures into this rotation and may be the best of the bunch.

The addition of a potent and diverse rushing attack will only make the Bears passing attack that much more lethal.  You all know about Jared Goff.  When you compare the balance between tools and efficiency, Goff may be the best QB in the PAC 12.  He's projected to go as a first rounder by Mel Kiper in next year's NFL draft because he has a live arm and a steady presence in the pocket.  In 2015, he'll be given a lot more freedom to make his own calls at the line and a lot more opportunity to run pass / run option plays.  This kind of flexibility will make this offense even more dangerous.

When he is throwing the ball, Goff will get to work with one of the two or three best receiving units in the conference.  Junior Kenny Lawler is the Cal Z receiver and their top returning pass catcher.  He's a long, lanky guy with terrific hands.  Also returning are Bryce Treggs (H receiver), Stephen Anderson, and Trevor Davis.  The three seniors combined for nearly 1700 yards and 16 TDs a year ago.  If that embarrassment of riches isn't enough, depth is provided by guys like junior Darius Powe (16.4 YPC) and senior Maurice Harris (2 TDs).  There are some young players rising on this unit as well.  I'll be keeping my eyes on 6'3" 210 lb redshirt freshman Jack Austin as the season progresses.

If there is a bugaboo here, it is the Cal offensive line.  This unit isn't bad, per se, but it doesn't project as particularly good either.  The strength is in the inside where the guards, Jordan Rigsbee and Chris Borrayo are both experienced starters for the Bears.  Steven Moore is another experience guy and, if healthy, he'll protect Goff's blind side.  Beyond that, there isn't a lot of depth or experience.  My sense is that young Matt Cochran will play C while the other tackle position gets settled between reserves Vinnie Johnson and Brian Farley.  While Cal probably has the depth to handle attrition on the inside, watch out for what happens at the tackle spots as that might be a weak link for them.

Added up together, Cal's offense is going to be terrific.  If that running game jells and the o-line outperforms, it might be Oregon-level terrific.  At the very least, it projects as the second best offense in the PAC 12 and capable of putting up between 38 and 40 points a game.

The Defense
Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Art Kaufman LB Depth
Rush Defense
Pass Rush
Secondary Play
LB Jalen Jefferson
DL Mustafa Jalil
DE DeVonte Wilson
DL James Looney

MLB Hardy Nickerson is a critical cog for the emerging Cal linebacking unit.

Many pundits like to dismiss the prospects for Cal because of how weak the defense is expected to be.  That is an understandable position, but I think it can often be taken out of context.  The real measurement of Cal's D needs to be against the metric of points allowed and then compared to the number of points that the Cal offense is expected to put up.  If Cal's defense can effectively keep opposing offenses into that low 30's range week in and week out, they have a chance to win a lot of games.

For Cal to be able to achieve that, they'll have to lean on the strength of the D.  That would be the front seven's ability to contain opposing rushers.  Cal has implemented a true 4-3 alignment with a goal of controlling the edges of opposing lines and they've had some success in containing the run.  Last season, they were one of just four PAC teams (the others being Stanford, Washington and USC) to surrender less than 4 YPC to opposing offenses.  The linebacking trio of junior Jalen Jefferson, senior Hardy Nickerson and junior Michael Barton were key to that accomplishment.  In fact, this trio may form one of the better starting units in the PAC (hard to believe).  Depth is provided by a couple of up and coming young players in Jake Kearney and Devante Downs.

The problem with the Cal linebackers is that they are surrounded in front and behind by groups that are not in as good of shape.  The Cal d-line has some decent talent at the top, but is plagued by a lack of proven depth.  Senior Mustafa Jalil is the most proven commodity.  When healthy, he can lock down the interior of the line.  Cal will be relying on huge contributions from incoming Wake Forest transfer James Looney and the return to form of DE Kyle Kragen, who missed all of last season with a bout of mono.  Pass rushing is going to be a problem for this unit.  Look for true freshman DeVante Wilson to come on and play the role that Josh Shirley played for UW in his freshman year as a dedicated pass rush specialist.

The lack of a proven pass rush gets complicated by the fact that the Cal secondary is probably the worst unit on the entire team and may be the worst secondary in the PAC.  Cal has had a veritable MASH unit's worth of injuries and instability across each of the positions such that they had to take their backup QB, Luke Rubenzer, and play him at Safety all of last spring.  I don't know enough to really predict who is going to play where when it all shakes out, but I know that guys like Rubenzer, Stefan McClure, Darius White, Darius Allensworth and at least a few incoming freshmen will all be in the mix.

I wish I had more insights here, but I had a hard time teasing out the situation during my research.  It is fair to say that there is a high level of  skepticism around the Bears ability to contain opposing passing games this season.  If they can get the kind of production that UW got out of their young secondary a year ago, they might still be ok.  If they don't, I'm not sure how much stopping the run will actually be worth.

Three Questions and a Comment: Leland Wong, Editor, Cal Golden Blogs

1. Jared Goff is getting the most preseason hype of any Pac12 QB. Is he a legit Heisman contender in 2015?

In my expert opinion of browsing the internet instead of working all day, I'd say USC's Cody Kessler is the one getting the most preseason hype of the Pac-12 quarterbacks with Goff coming in second. I think he'll be in some Heisman conversations--especially as a dark horse--but I'm not sure if he'll actually be a finalist or get considerable votes. Not that I question his abilities, but we all know how much voters love West Coast football and it'll be especially tough for Goff given Cal's recent history of embarrassing ineptitude. With insufficient 2014 hype and the stigma of being a "system quarterback", I don't think Goff will get the Heisman attention that he deserves..

2.  Where is the signature win on Cal's schedule in 2015?

I have to go with Texas here. It's early in the season (Week 3), a road game, and against a big nonconference name--dem's the makings for a statement win. The only thing lacking is that whole pesky win business... I certainly don't think it'll be impossible for the Bears to win because it's shaping up to be a battle of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness and Longhorns coach Charlie Strong might still be struggling at fixing the culture over there..

3. Cal has a new AD and he had nothing to do with hiring the current head coach. Is Sonny Dykes in a "make or break" season? If so, what does he have to do to stay off the hotseat?

The ice would be getting thinner under Dykes even if his wife were AD right now. He's hyped Year Three as the turning point for his program and that just happens to coincide with a wealth of returning starters on offense. Among the fans, expectations are getting pretty high this year and Dykes has to deliver. If Dykes wants to stay off the hot seat (Wait, mixed metaphors of ice and a hot seat? Am I a terrible writer or just making a great reference to A Song of Ice and Fire?), he's gotta make it to a bowl game this year.

The #1 reason Cal's defense will be better than advertised is ...

... because we're advertised to be terrible! I mean, one of our starting DBs this spring was last year's backup quarterback. Can't disappoint with expectations these low!

Predicting 2015: The Golden Bears

The Bears are my pick to be the "surprise team" of the PAC 12 in 2015.  It is really hard to ignore what they've been able to do on the offensive side of the ball since Dykes arrived.  They've stayed true to their offensive philosophy and have recruited in a disciplined way to develop depth at both receiver and running back - the tools that unlock this offense and allow them to compensate for having less access to talent on the lines.  That depth is now maturing and it comes just as Jared Goff enters his prime.

Unfortunately, this team isn't quite ready to compete for a PAC 12 Championship.  The potential for the offensive line to go sideways and the pending disaster that is the Cal secondary are both major red flags that I expect will cost the Bears a handful of games over the course of the season.  The thing with teams that emphasize offense - and this has happened to Oregon over the years - is that they will occasionally get tripped up by teams that have the athletes on defense who can take them out of their rhythm or force a couple of extra turnovers.  Without an able defense to negate those things when those games happen, Cal remains somewhat vulnerable.

I also cannot say that I'm a big fan of how the Cal schedule shapes up.  This is a four-home game conference schedule year for the Golden Bears and they happen to miss two teams that they match up very well with in Colorado and Arizona.  Add to that the fact that they have to visit Seattle, Eugene, AND Palo Alto for divisional games and you have the makings of a pretty tough journey.  The good news for Cal is that they are one of the few teams that has a mid-season BYE (Oct 17th) and they do get two of their last three at home.

Cal will be a contender in 2015.  I see them having a clear line of sight to the third spot in the North division and, depending on how Stanford shows with their refurbished defense, a competitor for the runner up spot behind Oregon.  Their offense is approaching "elite" levels and could get there if they get a few breaks on that offensive line.  The defense is going to be a problem.  But that linebacking corps is something to build upon and those guys collectively could be a big factor in keeping opposing scoring down at levels that the Cal offense can beat.  I like the Bears to pull out 5 or maybe even 6 conference wins in 2015 with a big upset or two (I'm looking at you, Oregon) mixed in there for good measure.