The reigning Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks come into Berkeley to face the California Golden Bears on Saturday with both teams experiencing some disappointment. Both lost at the very end of rivalry games last week, just hours from one another and in heartbreaking fashion: For the Ducks, it was giving up a two-score lead in the second half against Oregon State, and for Cal, an unlikely blocked PAT denying the Golden Bears overtime against Stanford.
In the bigger picture, last week's disappointments reflect larger letdowns thus far. Oregon can still repeat as conference champions by winning out, but the goal of a return to the College Football Playoff is almost assuredly out of reach this season. Cal came into 2020 with realistic designs on its own conference title, and the program's first outright in almost seven decades, but the Golden Bears have stumbled out of the gate to a winless start.
As a result, both teams face heightened pressure in their matchup Saturday in Berkeley.
No. 23 Oregon at Cal
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Oregon -10
When Oregon Has the Ball
Heading into 2020, the most obvious question marks about Oregon's prospects of a championship repeat loomed on offense. The Ducks lost four-year starting quarterback and the current front-runner for NFL Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert, and potential No. 1 overall draft pick Penei Sewell opted out due to COVID-19 uncertainty. However, putting up points has not been an issue for Oregon in 2020.
Tyler Shough has stepped in nicely at quarterback, showing off mobility and a fast-improving throwing touch. Coupled with arguably the deepest running back rotation in the nation, Oregon's parlayed that into 38.5 points per game. The Ducks indeed find ways to put up points, but their lingering issue is doing so with more consistency.
Against Washington State, for example, Oregon's offense started slow but gained steam in the second half. In the win over UCLA, however, the Ducks came out hot and slowed down the stretch. That same arc cost them against Oregon State. Oregon needs to show a full game's worth of offensive consistency — if not this week at Cal, then certainly when it faces Washington in a week.
When California Has the Ball
The Justin Wilcox era at Cal has led to a complete and immediate transformation of one of the nation's worst defenses into one of the best. However, the Golden Bears' inconsistency on offense has been the hurdle keeping them from contending for a conference championship. This season has been no exception.
While getting Chase Garbers back from a shoulder injury was a decided boon for Cal, it's yet to pay dividends this season. The Golden Bears are averaging less than 130 rushing yards per game, ranking in the lower third of Pac-12 offenses, with last year's breakout star Christopher Brown Jr. hampered by injury.
Most notably, Cal's offensive line has been absolutely ravaged due to COVID-19 protocols. That's a problem when faced with a talented Oregon front seven that's been slow to put up the kind of big numbers expected of it, but with the potential to unload at any moment. Freshman linebacker Noah Sewell is a big-time addition to a group that returned last year's standout freshman, Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Teams' responses to losses shape a season. In Oregon's case, bouncing back from the close defeat against Oregon State is more imperative than it is for Cal, which is already eliminated from the divisional race. To that end, the Ducks could show up Saturday more aggressive — but also have more pressure on them to respond.
Cal's playing with the proverbial house money, but the struggles that have caused the Golden Bears' 0-3 start are prominently highlighted faced against an Oregon team with the personnel to exploit them.
Prediction: Oregon 42, California 20
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— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.