Cal Football 2020 Assessment: Part 7, Momentum, Expectations, Schedule, Depth
The final part of our assessment of Cal's 2020 football team deals with the elements apart from the team that seem to matter.
This miscellaneous group includes momentum built from the previous season, expectations people inside and outside the program have for the 2020 season, the quality of the teams Cal must face, and the quality of Cal's backups.
There are other elements that can affect a team's seasons, but we'll stick to these four.
Cal Stats That Matter
Call won its final three games of 2019
Cal's 2020 opponents had a combined record of 78-73 in 2019, 6 of whom played in bowls
ESPN ranks Cal's 2020 schedule as the 4th-most-difficult schedule in the Pac-12
USA Today is the only reputable media outlet that ranked Cal its preseason top 25 (No. 23)
Cal has not been to the Rose Bowl since the 1958 season and has not won a Rose Bowl game since the 1937 season
The Holy Grail for Cal fans has been the Rose Bowl, but the only way the Bears could reach the Rose Bowl this season is to finish among the nation's top four teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings. This season the Rose Bowl serves as one of the two semifinal games in the the national championship playoff. So even if Cal captures the Pac-12 championship this season it would not be guaranteed a berth in the Rose Bowl. (The Rose Bowl will be played on Jan. 1, 2021, if you are interested.)
Let's continue to look at the four subjective elements:
Coaches and fans often say a victory in a bowl game provides momentum heading into the next season. Cal won its final three games last esason, including a Redbox Bowl win over Illinois, and none of those three games was played in Berkeley. So, the momentum theory suggests the Bears should be riding a wave of success heading into 2020.
We don't buy it.
Perhaps those season-ending wins puffed up players' self-image through the offseason a bit, but carryover from games played eight months earlier is minimal at best.
Furthermore, all three of those wins came against teams that finished with losing records.
The best that can be said is that winning the final three games of the previous season is not a negative.
Expectation is a fragile element that can work both ways.
It is undeniable that Cal's players, coaches and fans have high expectations for the 2020 season, with a conference title being whispered as a possibility.
That belief can bolster a program, because a team that is convinced it can do great things is more capable of accomplishing them. Players at Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State win some games simply because they expect to win and play to that expectation.
But those three programs have a history of success to support those beliefs. Cal's football program has shown gradual improvement under Justin Wilcox, going from 5-7 in his first season to 7-6 in 2018 to 8-5 last year with many of the key players from that squad returning. But the Bears have not had a team capable of challenging for a conference title in more than a decade. In short, they haven't done it yet.
High expectations can also have a negative effect. Those expectations can add undue pressure on players who are not used to dealing with those lofty goals. And an early-season disappointment can jar a team with high expectations and send it spiraling downward.
Wilcox has a pretty good handle on how to control expectations. And the Bears had brief encounters with high expectations each of the past two seasons when they earned early-season top-25 rankings only to fall by the wayside.
Bottom line, the high expectations might have a greater effect on Cal fans than on Cal players.
Rating a team's schedule is an imperfect undertaking. Prior to last season, Cal's road games against Washington and Stanford, both of whom were preseason top-25 teams, looked like supreme challenges. It turned out that neither team was as good as expected and Cal won both.
But we forge ahead.
TCU looks like a potential top-25 team, but the Horned Frogs come to Berkeley, so the Golden Bears seem capable of winning all three nonconference games.
The Pac-12 schedule is not kind in terms of opponents, since the Bears face the best teams in the Pac-12 South (Utah, USC, Arizona State) and don't play the two weakest (Arizona, Colorado).
However, two things work in Cal's favor:
--The Pac-12 does not look particularly strong. No Pac-12 team is projected to reach the College Football Playoff, and Oregon is likely to be the only team from the conference ranked in the preseason top 10.
--Cal plays most of the heavyweights at home. Games against Utah, Oregon and Washington are all at Berkeley this season. The Bears travel to face USC and Arizona State, but it's a tradeoff Cal will take.
Bottom line, the schedule is favorable to success -- at least as it appears now.
There will be injuries in football, and the loss of important offensive linemen and quarterback Chase Garbers for signficiant stretches affected the Bears' 2019 season.
Capable backups are a must.
The offensive line seems better equipped to handle an injury or two this season.
Losing a player the calibre of cornerback Camryn Bynum, inside linebacker Kuony Deng or defensive end Luc Bequette will present problems, but generally the defense can absorb some absences.
The Bears seem to have enough receivers to fill some gaps, and they hope Wisconsin grad transfer Bradrick Shaw can provide the inside running needed if Christopher Brown Jr. should miss playing time.
The only major concern depth-wise is at quarterback, which happens to be the most important position on the field. Unless Devon Modster or Spencer Brasch demonstrates considerable improvement from last season, Cal will be in trouble if Garbers misses signficant time, as he did last year.
A wise coach once told me that the most important player on a football team is the starting quarterback, and the second-most important player is the backup quarterback.
Overall, the elements of momentum, expectations, schedule and depth seem to be working in Cal's favor, but these elements that can make a 180-degree turn midway through a season.
Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53
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