Question 1: The Golden Bears are undefeated and ranked No. 24 in the nation (first time since 2015). That begs the question, are they legit contenders in the North or still a ways away?
Answer 1: The game against Oregon will answer the question definitively, but so far, the Bears do not look like a team that is ready to challenge for the Pac-12 North title.
The Bears started 3-0 last season and were equally as impressive then as they are now. They finished 5-7 overall and 2-7 in the Pac-12.
This year’s team is better than the 2017 version, because it has more versatility at the quarterback position, but it has not demonstrated that it is markedly better.
Cal won its first two games by a combined margin of 10 points and both came down to an onside kick in the closing moments. The Bears did not overwhelm Idaho State, a bad FCS team, like a quality Pac-12 team should.
The reason the Bears are ranked is because they beat BYU on the road and the Cougars’ subsequently beat Wisconsin on the road. So, the Bears are ranked by association.
Question 2: This is head coach Justin Wilcox’s second season at Cal — what are the changes you’ve seen in the program and players in year 2 compared with his first year?
Answer 2: The two biggest changes are a willingness to go outside the box with the change at quarterback and the continued development of the defense.
Ross Bowers played every meaningful snap at quarterback last season and seemed to be entrenched at the position through most of fall camp. But Wilcox and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin showed a bold side by making a change after just one half of the season opener. Not only did they go with a different player, they used both Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain, and allowed them to show their passing and running skills. As a result, the offense is a bit less predictable than it was a year ago, when Bowers presented little threat as a runner.
Defensively, Cal was much-improved last year over the Sonny Dykes era. But the defense is better yet this season, especially in the secondary. It's a veteran group and they have led the way as Cal intercepted seven passes through three games. The coaches talk about how their DBs have ball skills and aren't merely former wide receivers who couldn't catch the ball. Clearly, they face a huge test this week in Justin Herbert and an explosive Oregon offense. We'll see how far they've actually come on defense.
Question 3: Cal has been a thorn in Oregon’s side the past few years — and playing in Berkeley is always difficult. Why do you think that is?
Answer 3: Well, Oregon has won eight of the past nine games against Cal, so the Ducks have figured things out. Cal’s only win in that span was on 2016, when the Bears won in overtime against a Ducks team that was 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the conference entering the game.
Cal did give Oregon trouble during some of Chip Kelly’s years, winning games against the Ducks in 2007 and 2008, when Kelly was the offensive coordinator and the Ducks finished in the top 25, and coming close to a major upset in 2010, when Kelly was head coach and the Ducks finished ranked No.3.
In the first two cases, Cal simply had a good team, coached by Jeff Tedford. The Bears were ranked as high as No. 2 in the country in 2007, and the 31-24 win over the Ducks in Eugene pushed the Bears to 5-0. But quarterback Nate Longshore missed the next game with an injury and the Bears’ season went down the tubes. Cal was lucky to win that game as Oregon fumbled a ball through the end zone for a touchback giving Cal possession in the final minute.
Cal was 3-1 in the conference when it beat No. 23 Oregon 26-16 in 2008 in Berkeley. Two Oregon turnovers led to short fields and Cal touchdowns in a game played in the rain.
The one truly surprising result was Cal’s near upset in 2010, a game Oregon won 15-13. Credit there has to go to Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who had his team prepared for the Ducks’ versatile, quick-tempo attack. The Bears had quality and speed in that defensive unit and made all the right moves defensively.
Question 4: What/who has been the most impressive for the Golden Bears this year? Who do you think will give the Ducks the most trouble?
Answer 4: From a unit standpoint, the defensive secondary has been the most impressive. Cal has seven interceptions this season, including six by defensive backs. Safeties Jaylinn Hawkins (3) and Ashtyn Davis (2) share five of those picks, and corners Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks have been excellent. That unit will be tested by Justin Herbert and vice versa.
The most impressive individual player has been linebacker Evan Weaver, who has 39 total tackles, has knocked down four passes and seems to be present whenever something good happens for Cal.
Question 5: Who wins, and why?
Answer 5: Oregon will win by a comfortable margin simply because the Ducks are that much better than Cal. Even though the Bears are coming off a bye and are at home, they have not faced a quarterback remotely as good as Justin Herbert.
The Ducks’ run defense could turn the Bears into a one-dimensional team offensively, and it would be a lot to ask of redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Garbers to win the game for them in his third career start.