The highs and lows of living in California right now are no better exemplified than by the trials and tribulations of the California Golden Bears football team. The Bears got an unexpected bye last weekend because the fires that were ravaging California and claiming many lives rendered the air so unhealthy that officials decided to call off the Big Game, moving the annual matchup with Stanford to Dec. 1. That came just a week after Cal snapped a 14-game losing streak to in-state rival USC that dated back to Aaron Rodgers’ time in a Bears uniform. With the fires thankfully contained, Cal is set to host Colorado on Saturday.
Already bowl eligible, the Bears (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) can guarantee themselves a winning record with a win over the Buffaloes. If they carry momentum into the Big Game then they have a chance to end the regular season on the highest of notes, validating Justin Wilcox’s hire as Cal’s head coach.
On the flip side, Colorado enters this game without a permanent head coach following the dismissal of Mike MacIntyre. Even though he led the Buffaloes to a Pac-12 South Division title in 2016, overall MacIntyre went just 30-44 in his six seasons, including 14-39 in conference games. After starting the season 5-0 and ranked as high as No. 19 in the AP Top 25, Colorado has cratered, losing six in a row, which prompted the move. Quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper will serve as interim head coach as the Buffaloes try to salvage their season by becoming bowl eligible.
This game is going to be defining for both teams in a lot of ways. It may even vault Roper’s name into contention for the head coaching job at Colorado. With everything and nothing to play for, Saturday’s game should be a good one for a variety of reasons.
Colorado at California
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at 10 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Cal -12.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Colorado manage with an interim coach?
Interim coaches are a mystery. Sometimes you get a Bill Stewart-like moment other times you get Ed Orgeron’s final game with USC against UCLA. It really is tough to know and even tougher to predict. Everything coming out of the program at this time is standard fare for these types of situations. Players will tell you they’ve always loved the coach. Administrators will say they have complete confidence in the interim’s ability to do the job. The coach will say that he’s not doing anything differently, maybe doing a bit more but nothing greatly irregular. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times.
Kurt Roper is an accomplished coach. He’s got a rich pedigree and he loves offense. He’s coached in just about every situation you can imagine. If Colorado can get do-everything wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. healthy, Roper’s job will be finding a way to prevent Cal’s staunch defense from taking him out of the game. Is Roper up to the task of beating Cal potentially missing his team's best player? It’s an uphill battle, but it would be far from the strangest thing to happen in college football.
2. Can Garbers keep the momentum going?
Efficiency and comfort have been the name of the game with Cal quarterback Chase Garbers. Since becoming the starter, Garbers has been exactly what the Bears have needed: efficient, smart with the football, playing to his strengths and not getting beat with mistakes. Take the win over USC. Even though he only completed 14 passes for 93 yards, he contributed 34 n the ground, including a five-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that proved to be the game winner. Garbers was economical but in the end Cal got the win. That’s the only thing he cares about.
If Garbers can produce a game closer to Oregon State (three TD passes) or Washington (70 percent completion rate), Cal should cruise to victory. Running back Patrick Laird may have a tough time finding room against a Colorado defense that's giving up 150.2 rushing yards per game, so Garbers may to make a few more plays to keep the chains moving and get the Bears into scoring position. He doesn’t have to do everything, he just has to do enough and minimize the mistakes. It's a formula that has worked pretty well so far.
3. The turnover battle
When it comes to ball security, these two team are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Despite a winning record, Cal is ranked near the bottom of the country in turnover margin, coming in tied for 101st at minus-five. Colorado checks in at 60th at plus-one as the Buffaloes have done a good job of limiting giveaways (14, tied for 39th). With as many close games as the Bears have won and their issues sometimes scoring points, the last thing Cal wants to do is give Colorado additional positions. In their last two games alone, the Buffaloes are minus-six in the turnover department while the Bears are plus-four over their last four games.
To say that a lot is going on in the state of California right now would be an understatement. The tragic loss of life and property caused by the fires still hangs like a dark cloud over the state. In many ways, Saturday’s game is just that — a game. But it does give people the chance to forget about things for a couple hours and it allows their biggest worry to be whether or not Cal or Colorado can pick up a critical third down. In many ways, northern California wins just by going back to their normal routines and normal lives. We can be sure that many heroes of these fires will be honored on Saturday and at next week’s Big Game. Good for them. They deserve every bit of attention and praise they get for putting their lives on the lines to protect all of us.
As for the game itself, one team is on the rise, while the other is picking up the pieces after realizing the program needs to go in a different direction. Colorado interim head coach Kurt Roper may do some innovative and fun things on offense, but he’s already largely said that he’s going to continue doing his job and he expects that everyone else will do theirs. The Buffaloes aren't an explosive team and the game very much favors Cal’s style of play. Given the state of both programs, predicting this game seems more like simple math than integrated calculus. The Bears should win as long as they are not looking too far ahead to Stanford.
Prediction: Cal 31, Colorado 15
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.