It is rather remarkable how quickly hiring a good coach can lead to a program turnaround and this weekend's game between Cal and Arizona State is a perfect example of programs that saw marked improvement following the hire of a quality coach. The funny part about this is that both decisions were met with criticism, if not stronger negative reactions. Justin Wilcox was largely considered a bust during his time at USC and Herm Edwards was considered past his prime when hired at Arizona State. It only took one year for the narrative on those two coaches to be rewritten.
Arizona State has become more consistent under Edwards. The Sun Devils have developed into a team that will compete well enough on the defensive front, but also is creative and modern enough on offense to give teams problems on both sides of the ball. Jayden Daniels is a freshman, but he has a tremendous amount of talent. A four-star, dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school, Daniels has the size and ability to make plays with his arm and his legs. Give him the conference's best running back in Eno Benjamin and receivers like Brandon Aiyuk, Kyle Williams, and Frank Darby and Arizona State is loaded as any team in the Pac-12 on offense.
Cal largely is who they have been the last couple of years. Chase Garbers runs the offense with Christopher Brown Jr. setting the tempo at running back. Kekoa Crawford, Nikko Remigio, and Jordan Duncan don't seem like the type of receivers that would be leading the way for the Pac-12's lone remaining unbeaten team, but here we sit. Garbers is going to need to show that he can make more plays through the air at some point, but he's proven that this is his team and he will stave off any competition for the job.
This game has a ton of potential to be one of those classic "Pac-12 After Dark" adventures. It seems like it will be a defensive struggle at first, but then it will turn into a shootout as the game winds down and the teams start to figure out what the other is doing on defense. It should be a wild ride with several lead changes.
Arizona State at Cal
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 27 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Cal -4
When Arizona State Has the Ball
Jayden Daniels maturing after each game is the ideal scenario. That doesn't always happen, but the true freshman quarterback has been taking steps forward with each game, even if they are incremental. Even when faced with the caliber of a Michigan State defense on the road, Daniels has shown enough poise to help his team start 3-1, including a win over the Spartans. Cal will be another tough test for Daniels, but perhaps he can show what he learned from facing Michigan State. In that game, he was 15-for-26 for 140 yards with no touchdowns, but he also didn't turn the ball over and chipped in 37 yards on the ground in the Sun Devils' hard-fought, 10-7 victory. He bounced back numbers-wise (345 yards, 2 TDs, INT) last week against Colorado, but it wasn't enough as Arizona State fell at home, 34-31, to Colorado for its first loss of the season.
Just like against Michigan State (38 yards on 11 carries), Eno Benjamin will find yards hard to come by in this game, but that doesn't mean he can't show out. Benjamin is a guy that will likely play on Sundays, and he put together a 1,600-yard season in 2018. He's off to a slower start this season, but he knows this is just the type of game where he can improve his draft stock and hopefully put his team in position to win in the process. Daniels and Benjamin needs to lead the way on offense against a Golden Bears defense that hasn't been as stout in the early going compared to the form they showed throughout last season.
Cal currently sits 61st in the nation in total defense (366.5 ypg) vs. 15th at the end of last season. The Golden Bears feature the nation's leading tackler in linebacker Evan Weaver, who is averaging an astounding 16 stops per game. Cal also has a solid secondary, as evidenced by the two touchdown passes allowed through four games.
When Cal Has the Ball
Chase Garbers has done a decent job so far, as the sophomore has a 7:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. For starters, he's completing 57 percent of his passes but isn't much of a threat to throw it downfield (8.1 yards per attempt). He's also not much of a running threat, so don't be surprised if Arizona State puts eight in the box to try to force Garbers to beat them with his arm.
The easiest way to open up things in the passing game is for Christopher Brown Jr. and Marcel Dancy to make the most of their carries. Brown is second in the Pac-12 in rushing with 335 yards but he managed just 11 on eight carries in last week's 28-20 win at Ole Miss. Dancy is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and both he and Brown have two rushing touchdowns. The problem is that the Golden Bears are 10th in the Pac-12 in passing offense (212.8 ypg), so it's not like this is a team built to sling the ball all over the field.
Arizona State's defense is actually ahead of Cal in three of the four major categories. The Golden Bears have been slightly better against the pass, but it's not a significant gap. The Sun Devils have done a good job in being stingy and not beating themselves. They are second in the Pac-12 in terms of fewest penalties (with Cal not too far behind). Look for Arizona State to try to stop the run early and then turn the focus to getting pressure on Garbers in hopes of forcing an errant throw or producing quick and easy three-and-outs.
There was a time when this game would have flown under the radar, but with Justin Wilcox at Cal and Herm Edwards at Arizona State, the two programs have elevated their level of play and this is a very intriguing matchup. Both sides have been strong on defenses while the offenses are still finding their footing. The numbers don't show it yet, but the Sun Devils appear to have the edge when it comes to offense as they have enough playmakers to make things on the ground or through the air.
This also should be an interesting chess match coaching-wise, but Edwards has the edge on Wilcox when it comes to experience. This should be one of the better Pac-12 games in the week's slate, and it comes on Friday night. In the end, look for Arizona State to pull out a big road win.
Prediction: Arizona State 29, Cal 21
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.