Bowl season is upon us and that means Cheez-Its for everyone. Or at least it means that the California Golden Bears and TCU Horned Frogs will face off in the Cheez-It Bowl. The Cheez-It Bowl used to be called the Cactus Bowl then before that it was the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, the Insight Bowl and way back when, the Cooper Bowl, among other names. To say that this bowl has been around and seen a few things would be a gross understatement.
Making their first bowl appearance since 2015, Cal (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) is all kinds of excited for this opportunity. TCU (6-6, 4-5 Big 12) meanwhile had to win its last two games to even become bowl eligible but as a result, is making a fifth straight postseason appearance.
The Golden Bears have had a tremendous season under second-year head coach Justin Wilcox. For all intents and purposes, Wilcox has been one the best new coaches in the nation and is a big reason why Cal should be a contender in the Pac-12 for years to come. He brings rigid defensive play, but also trusts in and relies upon his coordinators to do their jobs. There can be no mistaking these Bears have more teeth in their bite.
On the flip side, the Horned Frogs enter this game after a disappointing regular season. After going 11-3 in 2017, expectations were high for Gary Patterson's team. But instead of contending in the Big 12, TCU had to fight and claw its way to bowl eligibility and finished tied for fifth in the conference. Regardless of the record, Patterson's team will be ready to play.
Patterson and Wilcox are cut from the same defensive cloth, so don't be surprised if there aren't many points scored in this one. Motivation shouldn't be an issue for either team as well with both teams looking to set the tone for 2019.
So even though the score may look similar to what normally happens at Chase Field (home of MLB's Arizona Diamondbacks) this is still a matchup of two quality teams. Just be sure to stock up on the Cheez-Its before kickoff.
Cheez-It Bowl: California (7-5) vs. TCU (6-6)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: Chase Field (Phoenix)
Spread: Cal -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Cal close out a promising season?
Head coach Justin Wilcox has done just about everything imaginable to give Golden Bears fans hope. He's already been rewarded with a one-year contract extension, so returning the favor with a bowl victory has to be high on his list of things he can do. For a coach that many considered an afterthought following his tenure at USC, Wilcox has done nothing but repay the school for their faith in him.
Cal is making its first bowl appearance since 2015 and just its second in the past seven seasons. You would have to go back to 2003-09 to find a stretch where the Bears were regularly competing in and winning bowl games. These are the little things that help coaches establish winning cultures and successful programs. For Wilcox, he hopes that Cal's showing in the Cheez-It Bowl leads to bigger and better things down the road.
2. Can Muehlstein go out a winner?
TCU senior Grayson Muehlstein will be making just his second career start in the bowl game. He replaced an injured Michael Collins in the first half of the Horned Frogs' win at Baylor and then helped the team become bowl eligible with a road upset of Oklahoma State the following Saturday. Against the Bears, completed 11 of 15 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. In the big win over the Cowboys, he threw for 180 yards with two scores while also running for 47 yards on 13 carries. He did lose a fumble, but the important thing is he was able to make enough plays to help TCU get that all-important sixth win.
Next up for Muehlstein is a Cal defense that is ranked in the top 25 nationally in total, passing and scoring defense. He may have a slight advantage in that there's not much game film on him, but the Golden Bears have had several weeks to prepare for the Horned Frogs as well. Muehlstein has provided TCU with a late spark. Will that continue against Cal?
3. Which team wants it more?
Bowl games usually come down to two things — motivation and desire. TCU is coming off of a disappointing regular season so the Horned Frogs may not be fired up for this bowl game compared to years' past. On the other hand, Cal has been building toward this and a victory over a program like TCU in the Cheez-It Bowl is the next step in the program's evolution. These two teams have never met, so there isn’t any history to draw from. If the Bears need some extra motivation it comes from the fact that this their first bowl appearance since 2015 while the Horned Frogs are playing in their fifth straight postseason game. To put it another way: Cal isn't used to this so the Bears should be plenty fired up while TCU may not show as much enthusiasm as they were in a bigger bowl game just a season ago.
The Golden Bears and the Horned Frogs both had seasons that could have been better or worse. Each team is likely going to build upon this year and use it as motivation for 2019. TCU's main issues are on offense, as the Horned Frogs are 96th in the nation in points per game just one season removed from finishing 29th. Cal produces fewer points (tied for 107th in scoring offense), so don't expect a ton of offensive fireworks.
Instead, both of these teams are built around their defenses. It's a new approach installed in Berkeley under head coach Justin Wilcox while TCU has long been known for its defensive prowess under head coach Gary Patterson. Both teams enter this game looking to finish the season on a winning note and serve as a jumping off point for 2019. But the Bears have more to play for as there's no better way for them to make a statement than to beat Patterson and the Horned Frogs in a bowl game. Look for Cal to find a way to put the finishing touches on a successful season by outlasting TCU.
Prediction: Cal 23, TCU 20
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.