You heard me!
Man, I've been impressed with this Cal team since the end of last season. After starting their string of conference play 0-3, with losses to Oregon, Arizona, and even UCLA (!), the Golden Bears went 4-2 against the rest of the Pac-12, including statement wins against No. 15 Washington and at USC, as well as a last-second loss against No. 10 Washington State in Pullman. Only Cal and Washington were able to keep that Cougar team under 31 points of offense.
Now, the 4-0 Cougars -- 1-0 in conference play, having again knocked off a top-15 ranked Washington team -- look as well-positioned as any squad in the Pac-12 to take the 'chip, even though they're widely under-appreciated in national circles. A lot of that has to do with the general prospectlessness of the team: there simply are no headliner talents on the Cal team. But perhaps that's what makes them so feisty -- you can't just take one guy out of the picture and stymie the whole team.
Let's start with the defense, even though that's highly irregular for our current generation of football: again, this Cal team isn't exactly regularly. The captain of the defense is middle linebacker Evan Weaver, a country-grown hammerhead and black hole between the tackles. Weaver has wracked up an astonishing 62 total tackles across the first four games of the season. For those of you playing at home, across a 12 game season, he'd have 186 tackles -- good for second on Sports Reference's all-time single-season tackles list, behind Luke Keuchly and ahead of, well, Luke Keuchly.
Last year, another big-bodied and slow-footed linebacker ran beside Weaver: Jordan Kunaszyk, who stuck on the Panthers roster as an undrafted free agent this season. Now, Weaver has a new and fascinating running mate in Kuony Deng, a 6-foot-6 JUCO transfer with vines, speed, and even some bend as a pass-rusher. Deng has proven a tremendous foil to Weaver from the interior and as a subpackage blitzer, solving one of the big weakness with the Weaver-Kunaszyk pairing last season.
Deng and Weaver present a fierce problem between the tackles -- what's most exciting and interesting with Cal's defense is what happens outside of it. HC Justin Wilcox -- who you should pay close attention to, as a candidate for ascension to a premiere college football job in the upcoming years -- has an extensive defensive background, in the SEC (Tennessee), Big 10 (Wisconsin), and Pac-12 (Washington, USC). As his defensive fronts have molded over time to respond to the various spread running games and mobile quarterbacks he's faced, one thing has remained constant: the once-college DB asks a lot from his secondary.
And these Bears deliver.
This team returns four, basically five starters, as well as a good portion of its depth, from a unit that gave up the eighth-fewest passing yards/game in all of college football last year; was 10th in passing defense S&P+. Might be good! But what's even better is there's measurable improvement across the board. FS Ashtyn Davis, likely the biggest Draft draw on the faceless Cal unit, was always able to run and hit: but this year, he's the third-leading tackler to Weaver and Deng, in large part to improved body control and tackling form.
Now, Davis brings 2 PBUs to the table; opposite starting safety Jaylinn Hawkins brings 1; outside corner Camryn Bynum brings 3, as does opposite CB Elijah Hicks; nickel corner Traveon Beck adds 2. The Golden Bears are fifth in the country with 23 team pass-breakups, and their highest individual mark is 3. Do you see what I'm saying about the team defense here?
What's most impressive about this Cal defense is how well and willingly these defensive backs run and hit. Hawkins has the length and size to take on big backs and tight ends in the flats, but not a single of the corners crest 200 pounds! Beck is 165! Yet they're all physical through the contact window and downfield, as well as consistent rally tacklers when dealing with plays to the perimeter. Ole Miss was able to get its plays to the perimeter against Cal with shaky success, but it wasn't enough to outpace the offense, and it required a change at QB to boot!
Speaking of that offense, redshirt sophomore QB Chase Garbers is playing like a redshirt senior out there -- the difference in comfort from Year 1 to Year 2 is stark. Always a nimble runner with surprising toughness, Garbers has shown improved trust in a revamped WR corps, and is willing to test downfield man coverage instead of shrinking from the opportunities and tucking the football. They rained down the pass on Ole Miss two weeks after dominating Washington on the ground, with new starters in Christopher Brown and Marcel Dancy. The offense isn't one of the country's best, but when it only needs 20+ points a game, it doesn't have to be.
Cal suddenly finds themselves in a strong position for the Pac-12 North, with Stanford spiraling, and UDub and Wazzu both in early holes (Washington, of course, courtesy of Cal themselves). The bad news is that Cal catches the teeth of the Pac-12 south: Utah, USC, and UCLA will all be tough outs after Cal squares off with Arizona State this week. The Golden Bears also travel to Eugene for a matchup with Oregon -- the only other team in the Pac-12 North currently with a win -- after a bye week for the Ducks. That game might prove an early death knell, unless Oregon drops a couple, and Cal remains perfect throughout. Unlikely.
So, without looking too far beyond the Sun Devils, that showdown on October 5th could well catapult the Golden Bears into Pac-12 Championship conversations, and their persistence with an unblemished record against the rest of a floundering Pac-12 will likely invite dark horse playoff dialogue. Of course, we're too far ahead of ourselves now.
What matters is this: Cal is one of the few teams that will feel comfortable sitting in man coverage against pretty much any roster west of Tuscaloosa, and that's a huge deal. They're mighty difficult to get explosive plays on, and are comfortable winning low-scoring grinders and minimizing possessions. They are inconvenient at best and suffocating at their best, and with an offense that has shown flashes of high-octane play, they might be able to survive a shootout or two as well. This Cal team is built in much the same mold that attracted many to Utah this offseason, but they're getting more quality play from their back seven and more consistent production from their quarterback.
Let's start talking about them like it.