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Cal vs. TCU Football Prediction and Preview

Max Duggan, TCU Horned Frogs Football

Max Duggan and the host Horned Frogs look to add to the Golden Bears' woes in this Pac-12 vs. Big 12 matchup

TCU and Cal come into a Week 2 matchup of Power 5 programs on significantly different wavelengths.

The host Horned Frogs rolled past Duquesne out of the FCS Northeast Conference so handily that the coaches from both sides agreed to shorten the fourth quarter.

Cal, meanwhile, sputtered through an anemic offensive performance and became another Power 5 victim of the Mountain West's annual parade of upsets. The Golden Bears' loss to Nevada punctuated an all-around dismal opening weekend for the Pac-12 North, which included rival Stanford being routed not far from Amon G. Carter Stadium against Kansas State in Arlington, Texas.

Cal looks to avoid an 0-2 hole to start the season, while the Horned Frogs aim to build positive momentum through a season-opening homestand. TCU plays its first four games at home, including a Sept. 25 date against SMU — coached by former Cal leader Sonny Dykes — and an Oct. 2 meeting with Texas.

Cal at TCU 

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 11 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: TCU -11

When Cal Has the Ball

Cal jumped out to an impressive start in Week 1, scoring touchdowns on its first two drives and gobbling up more than 13 minutes of clock between the possessions.

Such effective and time-consuming offense is an ideal complement to the hard-nosed defensive identity that has been Cal's signature under coach Justin Wilcox, but the Golden Bears have had spotty consistency on that side of the ball for much of the current coaching staff's tenure.

The health of quarterback Chase Garbers was an issue that plagued Cal midway through the 2019 season. He returned and the Golden Bears finished with a flourish by passing for 14 touchdowns against three interceptions. Garbers was picked off as many times in the shortened 2020 season while throwing for only six touchdowns.

In the 2021 opener against Nevada, he finished with a score and a pick and totaled only 177 yards. The absence of a deep ball (Garbers averaged only 4.7 yards per attempt) hindered the effectiveness of Cal's offense after the outstanding first quarter, resulting in just 6 of 14 third-down conversions.

The loss of running back Christopher Brooks also eliminated the most explosive of the Cal ball carriers. Wilcox said on Wednesday that Brooks will return to the lineup. With or without him in the rotation, don't be surprised to see TCU stack the box and force Cal to go to the air early.

When TCU Has the Ball

Quarterback Max Duggan had moments in 2020 when he was among the most exciting dual-threat playmakers in the country. He went for more than 100 rushing yards in wins over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech and carried for 79 yards and two touchdowns in the late-season defeat of Texas. 

Duggan relied primarily on his arm against Duquesne, rushing just twice while going 14-of-19 passing with a touchdown and interception. The more throw-heavy approach was by design against an overmatched opponent.

"[The TCU offensive line] wanted to make a statement [about] whatever people were saying in the offseason last year," Duggan said in the postgame press conference about criticisms of the Horned Frogs' pass protection. "They wanted to put all that stuff to rest."

Cal's front seven generating pressure through that line may dictate the direction TCU goes with balancing run and pass. Secondary play has been a consistent strength for the Golden Bears under Wilcox, and they opened 2021 limiting fast-rising NFL draft prospect Carson Strong to 22-of-39 passing.

However, Strong connected for deep passes to the tune of 312 yards. Should the multifaceted Horned Frogs rushing attack with Kendre Miller and Daimarqua Foster find creases to run, it could leave Cal vulnerable to big gains in the passing game.

Final Analysis

Last week did nothing to help the negative perception that has plagued the Pac-12 for the last few years. The conference and especially the North division appeared woefully unequipped to stand up to Power 5 contenders.

Week 1 aberration? Or indicative of a season-long problem? Either way, Cal has its hands full against a good TCU bunch. The Horned Frogs have the makings of a potential Big 12 Championship Game crasher and should show those qualities off in an emphatic win on Saturday.

Prediction: TCU 31, Cal 14 

Podcast: Week 2 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread

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