Unlike last season, when the Cal football team alternated between home and road games for the majority of the season, the schedule this year features many consecutive home or road games. While a more alternating schedule often causes coaches to look at games on a week-by-week basis, having consecutive home games multiple times this season could be either detrimental or beneficial, depending on how the team responds to coming home from a road stand (or vice versa).
The most surprising element on the schedule is a trip to the east coast to the University of North Carolina during week one ─ scheduled in 2014 as a home-and-home series for 2017 and 2018 ─ which follows a season in which the Bears also started far from home, in Australia. The Tar Heels finished last season 8-5, with a 2-point loss to Stanford in the Sun Bowl, as well as two other defeats by a margin of a touchdown or less. UNC’s quarterback at the time, however, was the now-departed second overall pick Mitch Trubisky, and the team may consequently show a marked downgrade when Cal comes to town during week one.
Following the east coast trip, the Bears will face a three-game home stand, arguably their most important of the season in setting the tone for postseason expectations. The first two are out-of-conference, against Weber State and Ole Miss. These games will be followed by Cal’s conference opener against No. 4 USC in week four. As the Trojans boast what appears to be the most talented roster in the Pac-12, few people would be willing to give the Bears a chance in this contest.
Weber State, an FCS team from the Big Sky Conference, looks like an early-season hype-generator for Cal, and a feasible victory, even for this year’s relatively inexperienced Bears roster. That leaves the UNC and Ole Miss games as the two crucial to gauging season expectations in the first four weeks. Winning at least two of the first four contests would certainly keep postseason aspirations alive for the Bears. Were they to leave the USC game with their fourth consecutive loss, it would already seem prudent for head coach Justin Wilcox to give experience to players further down the bench, in preparation for next season.
The long home stand is followed by consecutive road games ─ at Oregon and No. 8 Washington ─ and then two more consecutive home games against No. 24 Washington State and Arizona. While Cal’s chances of winning at Washington seem nearly as bleak as against USC two weeks prior, the Oregon game is much more of a toss-up, considering how poor the Ducks’ performance was last season.
Regardless, it seems unlikely that the Ducks will return to the same level of ineptitude that caused them to finish dead last in the Pac-12 North, and while last season Cal beat Oregon in two overtimes, this year the Bears might not be so lucky.
Washington State at home also seems like a predictable loss for the Bears, but Arizona, similar to Oregon, is coming off a horrid season and looks poised to bounce back, so this is a difficult contest to predict.
Optimistically, Cal can still be in the hunt for a bowl game with victories in two of its first four contests as well as against Oregon and Arizona, but even if that is the case, the final four games appear to be a brutal end to the season. Colorado lost its starting quarterback to the NFL but still has significant remnants of a deadly offense from last season. Oregon State is looking to win its second straight against the Bears this year. Finally, road games at No. 14 Stanford and UCLA ─ with quarterback Josh Rosen returning from injury ─ are always very difficult.
To complete the six victories likely required to make a bowl appearance, Cal will probably have to defeat the Beavers at home and Bruins on the road, but this task seems rather daunting for a program without a named starting quarterback just one week before the season starts.
Vikram Muller covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].