Oregon's visit to the Bay Area on Friday comes with surprisingly dire implications for both the Ducks, and the host Cal Golden Bears.
Oregon is guaranteed its worst regular-season finish since the 2006 season, the result of a 2-4 start. Things could get dramatically worse for the Ducks if they fail to get into the Pac-12 win column this week against a Cal team looking to stay on track for a bowl bid.
The Golden Bears were surging after a goal-line stand sealed a win over nationally ranked Utah three weeks ago, but Cal's anemic defensive performance last time out at Oregon State dropped Sonny Dykes' squad below .500 in conference play. The unpredictable volatility of the Pac-12 thus far ups the ante on every league game from here on out, and handling a team struggling to the extent Oregon has puts the pressure on Cal to end its seven-game losing streak in this series.
Oregon at Cal
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 21 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Cal -3
Three Things to Watch
1. All It Takes Is One Stop
One of the most popular cliches in sports: Hold an opponent to zero, you need only score once to win. Take that philosophy, flip it on its head, and it applies to Oregon and Cal.
Just get a single, crucial defensive stop, and that just might be enough to win.
Considering the defensive woes both teams have endured throughout the 2016 season, there should be no shortage of points scored Friday night. Cal ranks No. 123 in scoring defense in the FBS, Oregon checks in at No. 125.
The key is coming away with one stop, perhaps late in the game — although an early defensive stand could prove enough for the winning side to build a big lead early.
2. Running Wild
The defensive inadequacies of both teams start with an inability to slow the run. Cal's giving up a staggering 283.9 rushing yards per game — only Buffalo's been more porous against the run. Expect a monster performance from running back Royce Freeman, one of the nation's top ball carriers this season.
Oregon has performed slightly better at 238 yards per game allowed on the ground, but the Ducks' maligned secondary giving up huge totals through the air is partially to blame for that. Regardless, Cal can and will attack the Ducks up front.
Quarterback Davis Webb's ability to attack with the run-pass option can exploit Oregon in both facets, and Golden Bears running back Khalfani Muhammad's yards per carry average of 6.9 can expect an uptick.
3. Justin Herbert's Second Go-Around
Oregon Head coach Mark Helfrich has made some changes at key spots, which served as a tacit acknowledgement of 2016 as a rebuilding year for the Ducks. Freshman Justin Herbert replaced transfer quarterback Dakota Prukop in the Oregon starting lineup, and threw a pair of touchdown passes against the Pac-12's best defense, Washington.
Not a bad debut for the youngster, whose play could determine the immediate future of Oregon football. A strong showing at Cal should spark optimism for 2017 and beyond.
At 6-foot-6, Herbert looks quite a bit different than previous Ducks quarterbacks like Vernon Adams, Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas. He's not as much of a running threat as Marcus Mariota, but his big arm introduces an intriguing new element to the Oregon offense. Considering the Ducks' identity has long been staked to evolving offensively, Herbert's arrival might function as a hint for where the team's headed.
Put together two teams capable of putting up points and susceptible to allowing just as many, and the forecast is wildly unpredictable. I'll admit to waffling on this one, per my Athlon midseason awards and predictions, slotting Oregon higher in the Pac-12 North's final standings on the basis of Oregon winning the head-to-head.
Now, I'm not so sure. This has been an unusual year for the Ducks, who really should have beaten a Nebraska team now ranked in the top 10. Since that loss in the Lincoln, it's been a continuous downslide.
Likewise, Cal showed its potential in beating a top-20 team in Utah. Getting gashed by Oregon State, a program without a Pac-12 win since 2014, exposed the worst side of the Golden Bears. These are two truly Jekkyl-and-Hyde squads, which makes predicting this one difficult.
Buckle in, great ready for plenty of #Pac12AfterDark madness, and expect a close one. Advantage, home team.