2016 Cal football preview: games 1-4

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With the season around the corner, here are some predictions for the Cal football team’s early-year contests.

Game 1: Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

2015 Record: 3-10 (0-8 Mountain West Conference)

Winless in the Mountain West last year, the Rainbow Warriors opened as three-touchdown underdogs to Cal down under. There’s no way around it: Hawaii was awful last year, even dropping a game against Air Force 58-7. They currently have a muddy quarterback situation and a new coaching staff, and though the team will likely improve as the season goes on, it most likely won’t be at its best when they see Cal in Australia. The one bright spot will be 1000-yard rusher running back Paul Harris, who will be the focal point of the offense. Assuming Cal’s run defense can hold steady, as it did at times last year (sans Christian McCaffrey), this should be a pretty easy win. Hawaii’s presumptive starter at quarterback, senior Ikaika Woolsey, has a career completion percentage under 50 and has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Expect Cal’s opportunistic defense to cause turnovers and make life easy for the offense. The Bears will want to use this game as a warmup and work out any kinks before they head into the much more difficult part of their schedule.

Prediction: Double-digit Cal victory

Game 2: San Diego State Aztecs

2015 Record: 11-3 (8-0 Mountain West Conference)

Largely predicted to repeat as Mountain West champions, the Aztecs will look to build off an extremely successful 2015 season. Although they dropped an early game to Cal last year 35-7, they generally played extremely well against tough competition and had a deadly run game centered around prolific running back Donnel Pumphrey. As a senior this year, Pumphrey should play the same huge role that he did in the past two years, in which he rushed for 3520 yards. Starting quarterback and sophomore Christian Chapman will lead the Aztecs’ passing game, getting the nod after being a backup last year. The Bears’ defense contained Pumphrey last year, which was the main reason they were able to win so convincingly. The Aztecs will return a number of players and should tout a very similar squad. If Pumphrey can again be held in check, Cal will have a good shot at coming into its final game of nonconference play at 2-0 and perhaps be back on its way to a bowl game.

Prediction: Single-digit Cal victory

Game 3: Texas Longhorns

2015 Record: 5-7 (4-5 Big 12)

Last year, in an exciting shootout in Austin, Cal blew a three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter but ended up winning by one after Texas missed a late extra point. The fourth-quarter comeback exposed one of the Bears’ major weaknesses on defense: their inability to contain dual-threat quarterbacks. Jerrod Heard ran all over the Cal defense, and while it is uncertain whether he will be the starting quarterback this time around (the Longhorns have other options in senior Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele), there will likely be some speed at the quarterback position. Texas’ quarterback decision (it’ll likely be Heard or Buechele) will be indicative of how its season will go. Buechele means a rebuild, while Heard means that the team is in win-now mode. Texas is having a bit of an identity crisis, but is nonetheless extremely talented. The game should be close again, but you never know which Texas will show up. Will it be the Texas that took down a College Football Playoff team in Oklahoma or the one that got shut out by Iowa State? Cal’s chance at winning likely hinges on that.

Prediction: Coin Flip

Game 4: Arizona State Sun Devils

2015 Record: 6-7 (4-5 Pac-12)

Another team who last season took Cal to the wire but ultimately fell at the very end, the Sun Devils will be breaking in a new quarterback in redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins and should experience growing pains with a signal caller who has yet to see meaningful time at the collegiate level. ASU will return a lot of starters on defense, so they should be strong in that respect, but with a first-year starter at quarterback, it is hard to see them taking a big step forward, especially this early on. The Bears have a shot at winning this game and will need to exploit the matchup, because their schedule gets extremely tough very quickly after this game. There is a lot of youth on Arizona State, but there is also a ton of talent. Any game in the Pac-12 has the potential to be competitive and we should fully expect this one to be decided at the very end. The two takeaway-heavy defenses will most likely be the difference makers in this matchup, and whoever wins the turnover battle will most likely win the game as well.

Prediction: Single-digit ASU victory

Contact Adam Kreitzman at [email protected].