Already a must-win game

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With the Cal football game against Hawaii set to open the college football season, it seems weird to already use phrases such as “must-win game.” But that is just what the Bears are faced with Friday against the Rainbow Warriors.

According to ESPN, Cal has the fifth-hardest schedule in the country this season and, as followers of the program likely won’t be surprised to hear, it is again the back end of the schedule that is loaded. In fact, the Bears are expected to lose each of their last six games — Oregon, USC, Washington, Washington State, Stanford and UCLA. And, well, that’s a problem when you need six wins to reach bowl eligibility.

Now, sure, unless Marshawn Lynch rejoins the team, Cal won’t be favored in any one of its last six games.

But the chances that it’ll come out of that stretch with an upset are not insignificant, even though a specific game is hard to pinpoint. Even if the Bears are able to pull that off — say against a Bruins squad that has already clinched the Pac-12 South — they have to go on a tear in the opening part of their schedule to reach a bowl and avoid taking a substantial step back from last season’s successes.

To get that beginning stretch started right, it is imperative that the Bears win Friday. Faced with more difficult matchups with San Diego State, Texas and Utah in the coming weeks, Cal must take advantage of playing a relative cupcake in Hawaii.

With the Rainbow Warriors surrounded by questions on both ends of the ball, Hawaii presents Cal’s offense with a chance to show its ship is not sunk without Jared Goff. Hawaii allowed more than 35 points per game on average last season and that figures to make things easier for the Bears’ new quarterback, Davis Webb.

The Rainbow Warriors have especially struggled to rush the passer while Cal boasts a much-improved offensive line, a combination of factors that’s likely to keep Webb operating in a clean pocket. The Bears should hope that’s enough to help Webb avoid some of the interceptions he’s been throwing in fall camp. Given the talent disparity between the competitors and the fact that Hawaii is essentially at phase one in its rebuild, turnovers are one of the few things that can realistically turn the game in the Rainbow Warriors’ favor.

For Cal, the ability to force turnovers of its own can help break the game wide open. The Bears’ defense is, as usual, not just a question mark but an answer you don’t want to hear. With Damariay Drew — the best defender on last year’s team — out for the season, Cal’s unit is reliant on a largely unproven core. But this matchup, against a largely punchless Hawaii team, will give the Bears an opportunity to work out some kinks and test new things without being wary of a deluge of points.

Because of these advantages, it is clear why Cal is expected to win by so many points, with the running game standing as the main point in Hawaii’s favor. But this favorite status makes it all the more important that the Bears do not let this game slip by.

Doing so would already put any chance Cal has of reaching a bowl in an even more tenuous position. And while that may not be on the mind of the Bears yet — it definitely isn’t, Australia is way too cool — they need to be on their game Down Under to avoid looking back at this trip regretfully at the end of the season.

Hooman Yazdanian covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian