The California Golden Bearsand the North Carolina Tar Heels are similar in many ways. They both lost a highly regarded quarterback. Both suffered heavy personnel losses at the other offensive positions. And neither team could stop the run in 2016.
North Carolina was significantly better last fall, qualifying for a bowl game while Cal finished below .500. But both teams will be rebuilding in 2017, and the winner of the season opener will get a leg up on making a possible run to the postseason.
This is the first-ever meeting between the Bears and the Heels.
California at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 12:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN Extra/ACC Network
Spread: North Carolina -12
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
North Carolina no longer has Mitch Trubisky taking snaps, and Davis Webb is gone from Berkeley. So who is next? Carolina head coach Larry Fedora has yet to name the starter, though most feel it will be LSU transfer Brandon Harris. Chazz Surratt is an option, though Harris probably didn’t come to Chapel Hill to be the backup. The California situation is even cloudier. New head coach Justin Wilcox recently indicated that it could be any one of three competitors. It is very possible that no one knows either of the starting quarterbacks in this game until right before kickoff.
2. Justin Wilcox' impact on the Cal defense
The 40-year old Wilcox gets his opportunity to run a program after being a defensive coordinator since 2006, and Cal needs his help in a big way. The Bears finished 127th in scoring defense and 125th in total defense last fall. They do return five starters in the front seven, but that group gave up 273 yards per game on the ground. Wilcox — and new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter — want this group to play faster and harder. It shouldn’t be hard to improve on the 42.6 points per game that Cal surrendered in 2016.
3. UNC defending the run
This has been an ongoing problem for several years, but there may be some hope this fall. The strength of the North Carolina defense is the linebacker group headlined by Cole Holcomb and Andre Smith. The line loses tackle Nazair Jones, but Dajuan Drennon returns from various injuries and has looked good in camp. Tre Watson and Vic Enwere are a couple of good California backs, but this is not an explosive running team, and the line is suspect, meaning the UNC run defense could start the season on a positive note.
California may have a similar offensive philosophy, but everything else will be different. New head coach, new defensive philosophy with a shift to a 3-4, a new quarterback and 12 new starters overall. The Golden Bears lost their top receiver and their top rusher. In Chapel Hill, there’s a lot of turnover as well. Pretty much all the skill position talent needs to be replaced, and defensive coordinator Gene Chizik decided to call it quits. But there is stability in head coach Larry Fedora, and there are some quality defenders returning. The Tar Heels must keep a close watch on Cal receiver Demetris Robertson and limit his big-play capability. The run defense will do enough to slow down the Bears' running game and, while the UNC offense may sputter to start the season, Fedora will get things going against what should again be a porous Bears defense. It may not be pretty in week one, but Carolina will emerge with a solid victory.
Prediction: North Carolina 31, California 17
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.