Last season was a mixed bag for the California Golden Bears. Quarterback Jared Goff entered the season with Heisman Trophy expectations and a belief that the Bears could compete with Oregon and Stanford for a Pac-12 North championship. Instead Cal finished 8-5 overall and 4-5 in the division, good enough for fourth place behind Stanford, Oregon and Washington State. It was not a bad year by any stretch of the imagination, but Golden Bear fans couldn’t help leave 2015 wondering if a few more wins were left on the table.
Six games last season were decided by a touchdown or less, with Cal going 4-2 in those contests. The two games the Bears lost — USC and Utah — were very winnable games if not a few inopportune mistakes. Turnovers hurt against USC and Utah — try nine in those two games alone.
Whatever happened last year will just have to stay in the past. Cal has enough to focus on in 2016 without trying to play a game of “what if” about the past. The future is bright for the Golden Bears and one offseason move may play more of a role in moving forward than anyone could possibly imagine. Now it’s time to look ahead to 2016 and beyond.
5 Storylines to Watch in Cal’s Spring Practice
1. Jake Spavital’s impact on the Bear Raid offense
The Bear Raid offense under coordinator Tony Franklin could certainly move the football, but the system never quite produced the expected results on the field. Additionally, Franklin was getting up there in age and football is increasingly becoming a younger man’s game when it comes to assistants and recruiting. Franklin also was reported to have been one of the less active recruiters for the Bears and that simply had to change if they were going to compete with some of the classes being signed by their conference mates.
Enter Spavital as the new offensive coordinator. After parting ways with Texas A&M during a curious and tumultuous offseason, Cal may have ended up hiring one of the best available recruiters and coordinators in the nation. Spavital was largely responsible for the Aggies’ stellar quarterback recruits during his time as their offensive coordinator. Though most of them ended up transferring, it wasn’t because of their relationship with Spavital. If Spavital can produce anything like the quarterback talent he produced for the Aggies, the Golden Bears may be on the precipice of greatness in a quarterback-driven conference.
2. Replacing quarterback Jared Goff
First and foremost, you do not simply replace a talent like Goff overnight and expect the same results. It would seem likely that Chase Forrest would be the favorite headed into spring practices, but Luke Rubenzer will be returning to the quarterback spot — at least for the spring competition — after playing on defense in 2015. The younger quarterbacks on Cal’s roster like Ross Bowers and Max Gilliam could benefit from having Spavital as their offensive coordinator. Spavital has shown that he isn’t afraid to shake things up at quarterback if he feels such a move can provide the spark to his offense.
3. Limiting turnovers
The Bears need to get better in the turnover department. It has killed them in late-game situations and during winnable conference games. They did manage to finish No.13 in the nation by forcing 27 turnovers, but that was slightly offset by the fact that they coughed up the ball 23 times, resulting in a differential of just plus-four (+4). That put Cal at No. 39 in the nation in turnover margin. The giveaways were high (1.7 per game, No. 68), and it didn’t matter if the Bears were at home (1.6 turnovers per game) or on the road (1.7). It’s hard to win a division, let alone a conference, when a team turns the ball over nearly two times every game.
4. Defensive struggles for Cal still a major concern
There is no sugarcoating this: the Bears were simply not good enough on defense in 2015. Although it is important to keep sight of the fact that much of the defense is full of youth and inexperience, especially along the defensive line. The Bears finished No. 109 in total defense, No. 106 in rushing defense, No. 92 in passing defense, No. 122 in red zone defense, and No. 97 on third down. Only four Pac-12 teams finished with a worse ranking in total defense — Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona and Arizona State. Those teams finished a combined 24-27 with Oregon the only team to win more than eight games (9-4).
5. Finding a way to compete with the conference’s elite
Since Sonny Dykes took over as head coach, Cal is 0-12 against Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC. In those games, the Bears have been outscored by a margin of 534-284 or nearly 21 points per game. Only four of these games were within one score (eight or fewer points). In all but one matchup, the opposition put up 35 or more point and scored 40 or more in half of them. On the other side, the Bears have only managed to score more than 35 points twice. To say that the conference’s elite teams have been doing laps around them would be an understatement. If Dykes plans to keep this job moving forward, he’d best find a way to win a couple of those games or make them significantly closer results.
Pre-Spring Cal Outlook in the Pac-12
As was just mentioned, the Bears might not be far behind on pure speed, athleticism and talent, but there is a huge gap between the level of football they play against top teams compared to those hanging around the middle or bottom of the conference. Jared Goff’s departure is likely to set Cal back a little simply because quarterbacks like him do not just grow on trees. Losing as many weapons as the Bears have on offense won’t help them either, but the defense is going to be a year older and a year wiser and that could be a bigger boost than many realize.
Cal isn’t the only program making wholesale changes ahead of 2016. Much of the Pac-12 is undergoing some type of major change, whether it’s on offense or defense. A seasoned Cal defense could be more than enough to give the Bears a decent jumpstart on their season, but they will need to find a way to carry that momentum through the bye week and into one of the nation’s toughest second half schedules. The Bears get Oregon, USC, Washington, Washington State, Stanford and UCLA in consecutive weeks following their bye. Talk about a murderer’s row.
Cal should be in the hunt for a decent bowl, but unless the defense magically rights the ship in a single offseason, it likely won’t have the horses to compete for a conference championship in 2016. Of course, if the Bears do find their defensive wherewithal and new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital finds new life in Berkeley, nobody would be surprised if Cal found a way to knock off a few of the usual suspects in ‘16.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for CFBHuddle. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.