Football. Is. Back. Like, actually, this time. After a great deal of ambivalence in the weeks leading up to the tepid return of fall sports, the Pac-12 canceled all seasons entirely out of precaution for the ongoing pandemic. But the conference doubled back on its decision after a recent meeting, voting unanimously in favor of a shortened fall season for the Pac-12’s football squads.
With gridiron action set to resume the first week of November, the Bears and their Pac-12 opponents have just longer than a month to return to the drawing boards and focus their attention on the seven-game season ahead. Suffice to say, it’s been a whirlwind of a month for teams, coaches and fans alike, so if you feel behind on reading up about a season that wasn’t actually happening until a few days ago, our Cal football beat writers have you covered with the following crash course on COVID-19 conference play.
Which of Cal’s games do you see as the toughest on the schedule? Which game should be on fans’ radars as a potential upset?
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen: A shortened season gives every game more meaning, but Cal’s most important arrives Nov. 14 against Arizona State. The Pac-12 North is filled to the brim with tough opposition, but the Bears’ matchups with Oregon, Stanford and Washington are all at home. Last year, the Sun Devils upset the blue and gold in prime time at Memorial Stadium, unceremoniously dumped them from the top 25 and kicked off Cal’s four-game losing streak. What’s more, the Bears have not beaten a team from Arizona since 2015 and have not won in the Grand Canyon state since 2011. Arizona State is in many ways a comparable program to Cal: Both are rising programs in the Pac-12 with promising quarterbacks and coaches. A win could firmly place the Bears in the conference’s upper echelon.
Shailin Singh: For me, Oregon is still the crown jewel of the Pac-12, and the Ducks are the beast that the Bears need to finally take down. That Week 5 game is still the most difficult game on the schedule, even with Oregon having a new quarterback, an entirely new offensive line and a less experienced DB room. If this game were earlier in the season, I would probably predict Cal to take home the win, but Oregon’s younger faces will have plenty of time to build chemistry by the time they come back to Berkeley. Even so, if there’s a year for the Bears to take down the Ducks, this is the one.
Emily Ohman: When I see the words “Cal” and “upset” in the same sentence, I immediately think “Washington.” The Bears have had an uncanny and almost inexplicable history of getting the better of the favored Huskies for the past two years, and welcoming Washington on home turf as the first game of the season smells like a three-peat. Both squads will no doubt be rusty as they adjust to conference play, but the Bears have newfound moxie and an auspicious 2019 record to back it up. As far as preemptive hard-fought losses go, Arizona State in the second week of play seems threatening, especially if the Bears don’t get the result they’re hoping for against the Huskies.
What are some broader implications of a seven-game schedule that has only three home games, no bye weeks and limited preparation time?
JKS: Shortening the season also shortens the room for error. That is an important note for a Bears team that has been incredibly streaky. In each year of the Justin Wilcox era, Cal has had losing streaks of at least three games and winning streaks of at least three games. It’s a trend that has followed the program for the last decade — at no point in the last 10 years have the Bears put together a season without a losing streak of at least three games. The blue and gold can no longer entertain this tendency; a three-game losing streak could condemn Cal’s 2020 as an abject disappointment. There are no bye weeks, no buffers and no breaks. The Pac-12 team that will succeed in 2020 will be the one that best keeps its composure for seven weeks.
SS: With the team having limited ability to work out in the offseason, paired with a shortened training camp, I am a bit worried about the health of the Bears once the season comes around. I’m not even talking about the coronavirus, which is an even bigger concern. Rather, I worry about the possibly overwhelming number of muscle and ligament injuries that come from not being in so-called “football shape.” The NFL has seen a slew of injuries this season, with many star players being shut down less than a quarter of the way through the schedule. Cal will already feature several new faces who will need to develop quickly, so if injuries start piling up, there may be no coming back from it.
EO: Having a healthy team has never been more important than it is right now, and this season, it extends beyond the injured list. Each player is responsible for limiting their engagement in activities that could expose them to the coronavirus — while everyone needs to do their part to protect their safety and that of others, the mental toll that limited socializing might take on these players seems almost as serious as the physical consequences of contracting the disease. The infection of any player might threaten the viability of play for the whole conference; likewise, an untimely injury could affect not only the outcome of a game or two but the entirety of the season. Chase Garbers’ collarbone injury in last year’s matchup against ASU kicked off a barely affordable four-game losing streak, so a similar affliction would have disastrous consequences in a shortened season. Staying in tiptop shape — mentally, physically and in terms of antibodies — is the key to success for the Bears this fall and could give them an edge in a year when there’s never been higher stakes or less room for failure.
What are your overall predictions for Cal’s record in 2020?
JKS: The sky’s the limit for the Bears — every game on their known schedule is winnable. In a shortened and chaotic season, it may only take a hot streak and a pinch of luck to punch a ticket to a certain hallowed stadium in Pasadena. That being said, Cal is favored in only half its scheduled games, and the blue and gold could easily slip into an ignominious losing streak. Ultimately, trying to predict a Cal football season is like trying to find your class in Dwinelle Hall. It could be in the basement, it could be on the top floor or it could be canceled because of COVID-19. I would, however, be more surprised by a 2-5 record than by a College Football Playoff appearance.
SS: My gut is telling me that, barring major injury issues, this team is going to lose one of its five division games as well as one of its two Pac-12 South crossover games. That would put the Bears at 5-2, which would be a vast improvement over their 4-5 conference record last season. The game against ASU will be tough, and assuming that Cal finishes in the top three in the North, the final game of the season will likely be against USC, Utah or ASU again — all of which have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. That being said, I expect Cal’s offense to have improved significantly over the past two seasons, which should be enough to push the Bears into the conference’s top-tier teams. With the Monday afternoon announcement that star cornerback Cam Bynum is opting back in, six wins isn’t out of the realm of possibility at all for Cal.
EO: I’m remaining cautiously optimistic about the seven-game slate the Bears were given. While there are certainly some matchups that will test Cal’s gumption, I think Wilcox’s team is still riding a high from a previous season when its ceilings turned out higher than some saw coming. The Bears’ confidence is palpable, and they’ve demonstrated increasing tenacity in their offense while maintaining a defense that stays on lock. I wouldn’t be shocked by a 6-1 run for the money — this Cal team has real potential to contend for the conference crown this season, but with just seven games, it has to hit the ground sprinting come Nov. 7.
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen, Shailin Singh and Emily Ohman are the 2020 football beat writers. Contact Daily Cal Sports at [email protected].