As the Cal football team’s road trip to face USC at the Coliseum on Thursday approaches, fans and critics alike find themselves in the age-old predicament of comparing two teams by record alone before actually analyzing the teams’ strengths and weaknesses.
The Bears enter the matchup at 4-3, with two home wins against then-ranked opponents, including current No. 17 Utah. The Trojans, unranked and 4-3 just like the Bears, enter having played the more grueling schedule. They have come up against four ranked opponents — including losses to Utah and No. 1 Alabama — and a victory against No. 23 Colorado. Both teams also played Arizona State, with the Bears dropping a close road game to the Sun Devils, while the Trojans took a home victory.
So with both teams having the same record, same (non)-rank and similar schedules, Thursday night should be an evenly matched game, right?
Possibly, but probably not.
As maligned as college football rankings have been historically, the one thing that they have always taken into account — with admittedly varying degrees of success — is strength of schedule. And even though the Trojans and Bears are both unranked, it is important to take into account that the Trojans are on a three-game win streak and earned five votes to be ranked on the Top 25 this week. In addition, it is notable that USC had arguably the most difficult first month to the season of any team in the nation, with three ranked opponents, including two in the top 10.
The Trojans lost all three games, but those three losses were to much better opponents than Cal’s three. Cal fans will argue that the Bears will legitimately contend Thursday night because their team should be undefeated. But the fact that those games were so close and that the Bears came out on the losing end against notably weaker opponents speaks volumes. So yes, Cal probably should be undefeated based on the opponents they lost to and the reasons why.
But the point is, they aren’t.
The Bears also enter Thursday’s matchup on six days of rest, while the Trojans’ recent bye week allowed them 12 days since their last game. That along with the home-field advantage should make USC the favorite. It doesn’t help the Bears that some of their players missed practice because of the short week.
“We’ve had to make a lot of schedule changes and do a lot of different things out of the norm,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “We had, quite frankly, a number of players who couldn’t participate in practice because of classes or study groups or studying for midterms, so that was not ideal … but that doesn’t change our preparation.”
And even if the Cal players are somehow mentally and physically ready to take on a rising USC team, they will still have to deal with the fearsome Trojan secondary, led by the cornerback pairing of Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall. If these two can contain their respective Cal receivers in single coverage — especially Jackson on Demetris Robertson or Chad Hansen, if he plays — that would allow USC to pack the box and blitz Cal quarterback Davis Webb early, which he has struggled with, especially against ASU.
“Their secondary can play man coverage whenever they want. They can guard anybody in the country,” Webb said. “They’re the total package on defense. They shut Alabama down in the first quarter, and I think that’s the kind of game they’ve been playing the past three games.”
The Bears have relied on the run game in their past two outings, gaining more than 300 yards on the ground against both Oregon State and Oregon, and they will look to do so again this week to keep the USC defense on its toes and on the field. But the Trojans’ defensive line is significantly more formidable than that of the Beavers or Ducks — they only allow 164.4 rushing yards per game compared to 231.1 and 248.4, respectively — so Webb will have to hold his own against the blitz or run coverage as well if the Bears want to avoid becoming one-dimensional.
Ultimately, the odds are stacked against the Bears, and while they may surprise with their first road win on little rest, it seems rather unlikely.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].