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California Golden Bears vs. Oregon Ducks Preview and Prediction

Justin Herbert

Justin Herbert

When it was still the Pac-10, the present day Pac-12 had the makings of a hot, new rivalry between Cal and Oregon. The two programs were jockeying for position in the late 2000s, each challenging USC's place atop the conference with stars like Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson and Jahvid Best on Cal's side, and Jonathan Stewart, Haloti Ngata, Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Johnson and LaMichael James on Oregon's.

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Once the 2000s gave way to the 2010s, Oregon surged to the top of the conference and Cal fell behind. The budding rivalry never bloomed. But now in the latter-half of the decade, with first-year head coaches at both programs, the opportunity to rekindle that potential exists with the Ducks and Golden Bears meeting once more.

This is the first contest with Willie Taggart and Justin Wilcox on the sidelines for Oregon and Cal, respectively. Both suffered their first losses with their teams last week; an undefeated showdown certainly would have added some luster to this pairing.

Nevertheless, the winner will improve to 4-1 on the season and will sit well positioned to surprise in the Pac-12 North.

Cal at Oregon

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 30 at 10:30 p.m. ET 

TV Channel: FS1

Spread: Oregon -13.5 

Three Things to Watch

1. Ball control 

Cal played an outstanding three quarters in its loss to Pac-12 preseason favorite USC last week. The Golden Bears went into the final quarter tied with the Trojans at 13, but then... turnovers happened. Cal coughed up possession six times on the afternoon, including four in the fourth quarter alone.

The Golden Bears' turnover woes can be attributed partially to an outstanding USC defense — the Trojans rank No. 3 nationally in takeaways — and also to the struggles of a young, first-time starting quarterback in Ross Bowers. Cal needs Bowers to avoid a repeat in Autzen, as a Jim Leavitt-coordinated defense thrives on turnovers.

The Ducks have nine takeaways this season, but in their loss to Arizona State, they had only one. Oregon generated multiple turnovers in its three victories to win the overall turnover battle.

2. Establishing the run 

In addition to garnering takeaways, Oregon's wins were defined by the Ducks' ability to run the ball effectively. Running back Royce Freeman put up 150, 153 and 157 yards, respectively, in the three wins but was limited to 81 at Arizona State.

Oregon's ability to run was curtailed early — not because of Freeman, who finished averaging 5.4 yards per carry, but rather due to a big early deficit that required the Ducks to rely more heavily on the pass.

Cal's situation vs. USC was different in that the Golden Bears were tied through three quarters. However, their inability to run at all in that stretch allowed USC to pull ahead and forced Bowers to throw in the fourth quarter.

3. Quarterback accuracy

The defense that can more effectively disrupt the opposing quarterback should carry its team to a win; it's that simple.

While in Cal's case it's evident — Bowers must eliminate the turnovers that vexed him vs. USC — Oregon's had a much less obvious but equally important storyline play out with Justin Herbert.

Herbert has shined during his sophomore season, throwing eight touchdowns against just two interceptions. He was good for three scores and no picks last week at Arizona State. However, Herbert completed fewer than 60 percent of his pass attempts. In the second half against Nebraska on Sept. 9, Herbert's second-half accuracy woes helped the Cornhuskers nearly rally from a 28-point deficit.

Final Analysis

Both Cal and Oregon surprised through the first three weeks of the season — Cal perhaps more so than Oregon, given the Golden Bears' longstanding struggles and preseason projection to finish in the cellar of the Pac-12 North. One or both could hit a tailspin once conference play begins, however.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

Avoiding an league 0-2 start is important for avoiding that potential nose-dive. Playing the game at Autzen Stadium is certainly a benefit to Oregon, and on paper, the Ducks appear to be the stronger team. They are still somewhat mysterious, however, not having played any power opponents as Cal has with Ole Miss and USC.

The Golden Bears are less experienced but more tested. That should make for a competitive game, although the Ducks' overall talent advantage should make the ultimate difference.

Prediction: Oregon 35, Cal 31

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.