The Hotline occasionally ventures into the realm of the hypothetical. This is not one of those times.
Cal has an all-too-real opportunity to win the North, an end game that would turn the conference on its head while setting it back decades and ushering in a new era.
Take that scenario up Tightwad Hill and smoke it.
Our belief in the Bears’ prospects for success isn’t rooted in the improved offense or the granite defense or the apparent lack of a dominant team in the rugged division.
It’s that entire Old Blue-and-gold package, delivered to Strawberry Canyon on a wing and a bear.
Let’s dig into, shall we?
Key point to start the exercise: Cal was closer than you think to contending in the North last year.
- Leading late in the third quarter at Arizona, the Bears tossed not one but two Pick 6s — Arizona’s only points of the second half — thereby ensuring defeat where victory had been thisclose.
- Tied with Washington State midway through the fourth quarter, the Bears threw an interception in WSU’s end zone and eventually lost by six points.
Turn those losses into wins, and Cal would have been 9-3 overall and 6-3 in the conference — one game off the pace in the North.
As it was, the Bears finished 4-5 despite leading the nation in giveaways, with an astounding 11 fumbles and 20 interceptions.
The defense is arguably the best-coached unit in the conference — offense, defense or special teams, North or South.
(How else do you explain finishing in the top-10 nationally in yards-per-play allowed last year without an NFL Combine invitee or draft pick?)
With so many key players back on that side, the Bears don’t need a high-powered offense. They need an offense that doesn’t lose games.
So far, it hasn’t: Only four turnovers in three games.
At that pace, the Bears would finish with 16 giveaways — half their total from 2018.
But not only is the offense displaying improved ball security, it’s functioning more efficiently, especially in the aerial game, and scoring more points.
Not a lot more points, mind you, but enough: Incremental improvement will have a compounding effect because the defense is so good.
What’s more, the North is devoid of a juggernaut.
The Bears have already beaten Washington in Seattle; for the first time in a decade, it’s easy to envision a victory over Stanford; and they’re multiple touchdowns better than Oregon State.
That leaves Oregon and Washington State.
Close as they came to a win last year, the Bears are well positioned to fend off WSU in Berkeley. (More below.)
Oregon, however, is a problem:
Justin Herbert carved up the Bears last year and gets another shot — only in Eugene and with two weeks to prepare.
So how would a division title unfold for Cal?
We gamed out the most reasonable scenario:
— Home win over Arizona State next week pushes the Bears to 2-0 in conference play
— Loss at Oregon: 2-1
— Victory over Oregon State in Berkeley: 3-1.
— Loss at Utah: 3-2. (Best team in the conference with a front seven that will rattle Cal quarterback Chase Garbers.)
— Home win over Washington State: 4-2. (Cal’s secondary is one of the few that can match up with WSU’s receivers.)
— Home win over USC: 5-2. (Ditto on Cal’s secondary against USC’s receivers, plus the Trojans’ knack for boneheaded decisions and the Bears’ win last year in the Coliseum.)
— Road win over Stanford: 6-2. (Matchup finally favors Cal, and Stanford might not have an offensive line left by that point.)
— Road win over UCLA: 7-2. (Have you seen the Bruins?)
That gets the Bears to 7-2 with victories over Washington, Washington State and Stanford. But the division isn’t secure because of the head-to-head loss to Oregon.
Which means the Ducks have to lose three times.
We see a handful of potholes:
— at Stanford (because the Cardinal is in Oregon’s head)
— at Washington (for obvious reasons)
— vs. Washington State (because Mike Leach has ownership)
— at USC (because the Trojans can beat anybody when the moon and stars align)
— at Arizona State (which plays tough defense and doesn’t beat itself)
That’s five potential losses for the Ducks, and four are on the road.
Did we mention Oregon is 4-12 on the road the past three years?
So there you have it:
The scenario that ends with the Bears atop the North and heading to Levi’s Stadium one victory from their first Rose Bowl since there were 48 states.
If it happens, remember where you read it.
And if it doesn’t happen, remember where you read it — the Hotline will have no problem eating it.
Because crazily, it’s not crazy.
To the power rankings …
1. Oregon (2-1)
Last week: 1
Result: Beat Montana 35-3
Next up: at Stanford
Ducks have outscored opponents 133-21 in 11 of their 12 quarters thus far. But that 0-14 in the fourth against Auburn overshadows the rest.
2. Washington State (3-0)
Last week: 3
Result: Won at Houston 31-24
Next up: vs. UCLA
Remains to be seen just how good/mediocre Houston is. For now, we’ll regard the second half performance by WSU at high-quality considering the location, travel and short week.
3. Cal (3-0, 1-0)
Last week: 2
Result: Beat North Texas 23-17
Next up: at Mississippi
The 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff in Oxford is tougher on the body clock and means mid-day heat/humidity. But we’re guessing Justin Wilcox prefers that to a night game, which would return the Bears to campus 12 hours later with a Friday conference game (ASU) next week.
4. Washington (2-1, 0-1)
Last week: 4
Result: Beat Hawaii 52-20
Next up: at Brigham Young
Huskies have outscored opponents 113-40 in 11 of their 12 quarters thus far. But that 3-14 in the third against Cal overshadows the rest.
5. Stanford (1-2, 0-1)
Last week: 5
Result: Lost at UCF 45-27
Next up: vs. Oregon
Cardinal ranks 119th in the nation in pass efficiency defense even though it has faced first-year starting quarterbacks in every game. Oregon doesn’t have a first-year starter.
6. Oregon State (1-2)
Last week: 6
Result: Beat Cal Poly 45-7
Next up: Open (then vs. Stanford)
One win + no fisticuffs + Jake Luton remaining upright = great day to be a Beaver.
1. Utah (3-0)
Last week: 1
Result: Beat Idaho State 31-0
Next up: at USC (Friday)
The Week One victory in Provo (30-12) looks even better now than it did at the time. And depending on what happens Saturday in the Land of LaVell, it could receive another upgrade.
2. Arizona State (3-0)
Last week: 4
Result: Won at Michigan State 10-7
Next up: vs. Colorado
Yes, the officials blew it, and MSU should have be awarded a short field goal to force OT. But the Spartans malfunctioned time after time — how does the kicking team have 12 men? — and ASU did not.
3. USC (2-1, 1-0)
Last week: 2
Result: Lost at Brigham Young 30-27 (OT)
Next up: vs. Utah (Friday)
We believe Graham Harrell has it right with the focus on run-pass balance, but handing off on second-and-11 in OT, on the heels of a failed first-down run, was a mistake. I’m sure USC fans will shrug it off.
4. Colorado (2-1)
Last week: 3
Result: Lost to Air Force 30-23
Next up: at Arizona State
Even in defeat, credit the Buffs with another gritty second half. But could someone please explain why they were outscored 37-10 in the first by Nebraska and Air Force?
5. Arizona (2-1)
Last week: 5
Result: Beat Texas Tech 28-14
Next up: Open (then vs. UCLA)
Watching the defense Saturday night, all I could think of were these two words.
6. UCLA (0-3)
Last week: 6
Result: Lost to Oklahoma 48-14
Next up: at Washington State
We declared the Bruins DOA two Saturdays ago. All that’s left is to see if they can rise to the level of spoiler.