Featuring an overhauled offense and numerous transfers, Cal football enters the 2023 season with a lot of new faces and just as many unanswered questions.
The Daily Californian football staff weigh-in on what to expect from the Bears with kickoff against North Texas right around the corner.
With Sam Jackson V named the starting quarterback in week one, what do you expect will be the focus for Cal’s offense at the start of the season?
Ryan Sheehan: To win the game? Running the ball. With Jackson now taking the helm and running back Jaydn Ott returning for a sophomore campaign, the Bears now boast a two-headed monster in the backfield. Jackson’s mobility and creativity will mesh well with Cal’s historically ground-based offensive attack. However, I expect new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital to try and put Jackson in passing situations throughout his first start against North Texas. Having only completed six passes in his collegiate career, Spavital and Jackson will take this opportunity against the Mean Green to prove the Bears’ offense is two-dimensional before the week two showdown with Auburn.
Kenzo Fukuda: Establishing the run game will not only get Ott into favorable matchups, it will also open up more looks in the passing game for Jackson. Jackson is at his best when he’s on the move, whether that’s him rolling out or scrambling when the pass rush reaches the pocket. I’d like Spavital to get Jackson going with the play-action passes because it will help prevent potential growing pains with his pocket presence. I also would not be surprised if this run-first, play-action game plan opens up the deep ball for Cal. Jeremiah Hunter and Marquis Montgomery can burn opposing secondaries, so it’s important for the Cal offense to take a shot here and there to keep the defense honest.
Kyle Ngo: It’s no secret that the Bears’ backfield this season is much more athletic than it was last season. Jackson provides a jolt of electricity at quarterback, and running back Jaydn Ott is only getting better. Considering Jackson’s lack of in-game experience, I am hoping new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital puts his Air Raid offense on hold, at least for week one, to allow Jackson to get better acclimated. I expect the coaches to give Ott and the rest of the running back room plenty of rushes while mixing in play-action passes, run-pass options and occasional deep passes to open up the field. Utilizing innate athletic ability first and letting savvy pass plays come into the fray later would ease the squad in and make for a dangerous offensive barrage down the road.
There were times last season when Cal’s defense struggled to get off the field against high-powered offenses. What are you looking for from the defense in the first weeks of the season?
RS: Pass rush. Cal ranked 106 in total sacks last season with 19. Even if the front seven doesn’t get to the quarterback consistently, providing more pressure will put a strain on opposing offenses. Given that every offense in college football will still be trying to get up to speed, putting the quarterback on the turf is a surefire way to get off the field.
KF: It’d be great to see the Bear’s defense generate turnovers, especially in high-pressure moments. Cal wasn’t terrible at it last season — the team forced 1.5 turnovers a game which ranked 60th in the NCAA. The Big Game victory was secured last season thanks to the defense forcing turnovers. Jackson Sirmon recovered a fumble for a touchdown to take the lead and Daniel Scott intercepted Tanner McKee’s pass with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter, two huge turnovers that won the Bears the game. With a less-than-ideal pass rush and an untested secondary, this team is going to need more of these kinds of game-swinging plays.
KN: I am hoping the defense can do just as this question asks: get off the field. Last season, shutting down opponent’s drives on 3rd, and especially 4th down, was a prominent issue. The Bears were 95th in the country in opposing 4th down conversion percentage, as opponents converted 15 out of 25 (60%) of their 4th down attempts. Cal was not much better on 3rd down, as its 39.1% mark was good for 65th in the country. Giving the offense as many opportunities as possible will be key as new players continue to mesh, so I am hoping the defense can hold up in those late down situations to put the ball in the hands of Jackson and company.
This year marks the final season of the Pac-12 conference as we know it. What is one conference matchup that you are most excited about?
RS: Assuming Stanford doesn’t decide to go it alone in 2024, one of the most impactful and sentimental games of the season will be the final regular season game against UCLA. Even though the Bears will be on the road this year, the matchup will be the final Pac-12 game at the Rose Bowl. It doesn’t get more cinematic than the conference’s most iconic stadium hosting what is potentially the final matchup between two long-standing in-state rivals. More acutely, this game will also likely be pivotal in bowl game placement for UCLA and bowl eligibility for Cal — something the Bears haven’t qualified for since 2019.
KF: I wish Cal got a crack at Deion Sanders’ Colorado team this season (also to redeem the embarrassing loss to the Buffaloes last season). But I’m always excited when Cal plays the two Los Angeles teams because of the NorCal-SoCal animosity that always seems to boil over in those games. It will also be fun to watch the Big Game at Stanford this year because Cal has a chance to extend its win streak to three over the historic rival.
KN: I am most excited to see USC play at Memorial Stadium one last time, at least as an official conference rival. Last season’s matchup at the Coliseum was a close near-comeback loss for the Bears, and the blue and gold actually pulled out a win in 2021 to make this season’s game the rubber match between the two teams. 2022 Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and the rest of that electric offense will be tough to stop, but USC and Lincoln Riley’s historically middling defense leaves the door open for Cal to swoop in and steal both the win and the Trojans’ College Football Playoff hopes.