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California Golden Bears vs. Washington Huskies Preview and Prediction

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From 2006-09, California Golden Bears head coach Justin Wilcox coordinated outstanding Boise State defenses during that program's high-water mark.

Washington Huskies head coach Chris Petersen

It was a golden age for the Broncos in which they put together three unbeaten regular seasons, two perfect campaigns, and won a pair of Fiesta Bowls. That stretch helped make then-BSU head coach Chris Petersen one of the hottest commodities in the coaching community, and the same proved true for Wilcox.

He became one of the most coveted defensive coordinators in the nation, making stops at Tennessee and USC that bookended a wildly successful two years at Washington, where Wilcox inherited one of the worst defenses in college football and immediately transformed it into one of the Pac-12's best.

Wilcox has worked some similarly impressive magic through his first half-season at Cal, overseeing a turnaround performance from one of the nation's bottom-ranked defenses a year ago. The Golden Bears face a monumental task against Wilcox's former employer, though.

Cal at Washington

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

TV Channel: ESPN2

Spread: Washington -27.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Protect the football

It's a pretty simple concept, but one Washington's opponents struggle with. The Huskies led college football in turnover creation a season ago and are tied for sixth heading into Saturday's contest.

Conversely, Cal's 13 giveaways are more than all but two teams in the FBS. Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin's high-flying scheme has shown flashes through the Golden Bears' first five games, but first-year starting quarterback Ross Bowers has exhibited growing pains.

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In turn, Cal's best hope — as is often the case with upset bids — is to force turnovers. The Golden Bears have been excellent in that regard, an indicator of Wilcox's immediate influence. Their 12 takeaways match Washington's impressive rate. However, Washington has been much more careful with the ball than Cal, as is to be expected of a more veteran lineup. The Huskies have only five turnovers on the season.

2. Can Cal stop the run?

Cal stayed competitive with preseason Pac-12 South favorite USC by stymieing the Trojans' run game. USC managed just 3.4 yards per carry, albeit with feature back Ronald Jones II sidelined. The Golden Bears were unable to replicate that success a week ago, giving up more than 300 rushing yards to Oregon, including a 7.8 yards-per-carry clip from Kani Benoit.

Washington Huskies RB Myles Gaskin

Washington attacks with its own multifaceted backfield of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman. Gaskin in particular has been electric this season, producing one of the Pac-12's best yards per carry averages at 7.1. Should he get rolling, it will be a long night for the Cal defense.

3. Starting strong

Washington hasn't really been tested yet this season, but the Huskies also have not been the fastest-starting team, either. Rutgers was competitive for a half; ditto Colorado and Oregon State the last two weeks. Cal hung around with USC for three quarters on Sept. 23, but last week, dug a 17-0 hole in the loss to Oregon.

The Huskies' best course of action against an upset-minded opponent may be to step on the gas early — though given how Washington's early games have gone, UW has proven adept at throwing the switch in the second half.

Final Analysis

Wilcox and the new Cal staff already exceeded expectations with their 3-0 start, after having been projected as the runaway choice to finish dead last in the Pac-12. The fast start is becoming a fading memory, however, as a third straight loss looks to be unavoidable.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Washington has not had to break much of a sweat in its perfect start, and probably will not need to this week, either.

Prediction: Washington 48, Cal 14

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

(Top photo courtesy of www.calbears.com)