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California Golden Bears vs. Colorado Buffaloes Preview and Prediction

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The Cal Golden Bears and Colorado Buffaloes are a pair of 4-4 teams in search of bowl eligibility, but prior to kickoff, prepare to hear a lot about Washington State. After all, Cal beat the then-No. 8 Cougars 37-3 at home on Friday the 13th, and Colorado was drubbed by Wazzu 28-0 in a sloppy, rain-soaked contest in Pullman last week. Even though this game is in Boulder, it would be pretty easy to predict an easy win for the Bears based on the results from back-to-back weekends. Nevertheless, oddsmakers don’t see it that way. In fact, Colorado is favored to win outright.

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Cal at Colorado

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Colorado -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Colorado RB Phillip Lindsay
The Buffaloes found themselves with a surprising quarterback controversy after starter Steven Montez was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Sam Noyer last week against the Cougars. However, whichever QB earns the start against Cal will have a tough test facing a Golden Bears defense that ranks second nationally with 13 interceptions. On the other hand, he will have one of the best running backs in the Pac-12 to hand off to.

Lindsay (above, right) ranks second in the conference (behind Stanford Heisman candidate Bryce Love) and sixth in the country with 1,093 rushing yards. Lindsay has surpassed 100 yards in four games this season. Lindsay had a career-high 281 yards on the ground against Arizona, set the school career record for all-purpose yardage in the process and has scored 10 rushing touchdowns this season and 32 in his career. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound senior has carried a heavy load for the Buffaloes this season, having averaged 25.9 rushing attempts per game so far, which is the third-highest workload in the nation.

2. Offensive line struggles
The Colorado offensive line has done a good job opening holes for Lindsay, who in turn has been very good at turning those holes into big gains. For example, he scored an important 74-yard touchdown that helped the Buffaloes survive a scare and secure their lone conference win of the season at Oregon State.

However, the Buffs have struggled in pass protection. Opponents have put significant pressure on Colorado quarterbacks, and the offensive line has surrendered 23 sacks and an ugly 8.0. percent sack rate this season. That pressure helps explain Montez’s struggles throwing the football, at least in part. The Colorado offensive line has allowed multiple sacks in six games and has surrendered at least one sack in all but one contest.

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Cal is in a similar situation. The Bears have a solid running back combo in Patrick Laird and Vic Enwere, but Cal's O-line has allowed even more sacks (26), and only a slightly lower sack rate (7.3 percent) than Colorado. The Bears' line, which may not have banged up left tackle Patrick Mekari available Saturday, allowed 15 combined sacks in the team’s last two road games, losses at Oregon and Washington.

3. Run defense
Given the struggles in pass protection and the talent available at running back, Cal and Colorado are sure to rely heavily on running the football. As a result, the team better able to stop the run will have a huge advantage.

The Golden Bears have made great strides defensively under new head coach Justin Wilcox, a former defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, USC, Washington, Tennessee and Boise State. Nevertheless, Cal has still surrendered 175.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks seventh in the Pac-12 and No. 78 nationally. Two opponents gashed the Bears for more than 300 yards on the ground, including Arizona last week. The Wildcats ran for 345 yards on 7.5 yards per carry.

The young Colorado defense has taken a step back under new coordinator D.J. Eliot. The Buffs rank ninth in the league and 97th in the country in rush defense (193.9 rushing yards allowed per game), having allowed 5.04 yards per carry. In 2016, Colorado surrendered just 148.9 rushing yards per game and 4.07 yards per attempt. The Buffaloes had success early, holding Colorado State, Northern Colorado and UCLA to fewer than 100 yards on the ground. However, Arizona averaged 9.9 yards per rush and racked up 425 rushing yards against Colorado. The Buffs also surrendered 194 rushing yards to Washington State last week, while Cal held the Cougars to just 23 yards on the ground.

Final Analysis

Statistically speaking, Cal has a slight advantage on defense. However, the Bears have sorely missed playmaking linebacker Devante Downs, who was the leading tackler in the Pac-12 when he went down with a season-ending injury against Washington State. Downs led the team with three sacks and also recorded 5.5 tackles for a loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. The unit as a whole has improved, but it’s difficult to replace such a talented and productive player.

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Furthermore, both quarterbacks are turnover prone. Colorado's Steven Montez has thrown six interceptions, and Cal starter Ross Bowers has been picked off 10 times, including two last week. Given the uncertainty surrounding Montez as the starter, as well as Cal’s success forcing turnovers and the presence of running back Phillip Lindsay, we can expect the Buffs to lean heavily on the ground game. Since Cal has shown improvement stopping the run, there’s reason to believe the Bears can slow Colorado down well enough to escape Boulder with a win.

Prediction: Cal 24, Colorado 21

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.