The 2018 college football season is finally here and California Golden Bears fans have plenty of reason to feel optimistic entering the opener against North Carolina. Head coach Justin Wilcox had the Bears one game shy of a bowl and looking like a different team than the ones fans had seen under Sonny Dykes. The five wins the Bears had last season could have just as easily been eight wins. Close losses to Arizona, Stanford and UCLA ultimately kept the Bears out of postseason play. Assuming growth under Wilcox, those close losses become close wins the next season.
On the other side, the Tar Heels are coming off of a disappointing 3-9 season that featured just one victory against a Power 5 opponent. Larry Feodra's team was decimated by injuries but no matter how you slice it, 2017 was a forgettable season. How much better will it get in 2018? With just 12 starters returning and 13 players having to serve varying suspensions for selling school-issued Nike shoes, it's shaping up to be another long season for Fedora and company.
Differing outlooks aside, this is one of the more intriguing non-conference matchups of Week 1. The two teams met to open the 2017 season with Cal coming away with a 35-30 victory over North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Will this be another close contest or will the Bears make the most of their offseason positive momentum and add to the Tar Heels' woes?
North Carolina at California
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Cal -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Has Bowers taken the next step?
Cal quarterback Ross Bowers had a great game against the Tar Heels last year, starting his 2017 campaign by going 24-for-38 for 363 yards and four touchdowns. He put up decent numbers for the season (3,039 yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs) and now the hope is that he can take that next step under offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. Baldwin, the former head coach at FCS power Eastern Washington, is known for offenses that score in bunches. If he and Bowers can get on the same page, the Bears have a strong chance of improving upon last year's 27.8 points per game, which placed them 10th in the Pac-12.
No, the Cal Bears are not going to turn into the Baylor offense of yore, but the offense could turn into a dynamic force capable of beating you on the ground and in the air. In the Pac-12, having that balance will win you a lot of games. Three of Cal’s first four games are against quality competition -- North Carolina, BYU and Oregon -- so Bowers is going to need to show he has what it takes early on. The Bears' slate doesn't ease up as they enter the heart of conference play either, so a strong start is necessary to capitalize on the momentum that's been building. Fortunately, Bowers knows how to beat North Carolina and Baldwin knows how to put him in a position to succeed.
2. North Carolina run defense
While injuries certainly didn't help, there's no way to sugarcoat it — the Tar Heels couldn't stop anyone from running against them last season. In fact, this has been a recurring theme over the past several season as they have been the ACC's worst rushing defense each of the past five seasons. In 2017, the Heels allowed 213 yards per game, which ranked them 113th nationally, and surrendered 21 rushing touchdowns alone.
Cal had its own struggles with its running game last season. The Bears averaged just 125.6 rushing yards per game, which ranked them 109th nationally. There will be a couple of new faces in the backfield but Patrick Laird, who was a pleasant surprise with 1,127 rushing yards in 2017, will lead the way. Former starter Tre Watson and two others transferred but Wilcox has added junior college transfer Marcel Dancy while former quarterback Alex Netherda has switched to running back.
So while Cal fans are anxious to see how Bowers has progressed, for the game plan should be fairly simple – run, run and run some more or at least until the Tar Heels show they can stop you.
3. The turnover battle
Can Cal repeat its performance last year where the Bears forced three turnovers, effectively changing the course of the game and setting up their fourth-quarter rally? Last season, Justin Wilcox's team was 4-0 when it won the turnover battle, 1-3 when the Bears lost it and 0-4 when it was even. At a minimum, Cal needs to turn some of those even games into wins. It’s great to win the turnover battle, but it’s even better to prove you can win a game without doing so. Can defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter make an inexperienced North Carolina offense that returns just five starters pay when it matters?
There's no question Cal enters this game in better shape. The Bears showed signs of improvement in Justin Wilcox's first season as head coach and appear well positioned to take another step forward in 2018. Ross Bowers is the Pac-12's leading returning passer (253.3 ypg) and he should pair with running back Patrick Laird to form a productive, it not potent, offensive tandem.
North Carolina is looking to erase the bad taste of 2017 from its mouth, but Larry Fedora is already having to deal with 13 different players who have been suspended for varying lengths. The Tar Heels are inexperienced on offense and their issues stopping the run on defense have been well documented. Cal will have to account for wide receiver/return specialist Anthony Ratliff-Williams but otherwise the Bears appear to be the better team on paper.
North Carolina didn't make the cross-country trek to Berkeley to simply roll over but Cal should find a way to come out of this one with a win.
Prediction: Cal 31, North Carolina 21
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.