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  1. #1
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    Brutal schedule, for Cal

    he effects of the air raid offense are obvious. Teams that employ this style define the game in a specific way, force you to make open-field tackles (often for 80-plus snaps), and wear your linemen down by forcing them to attack the quarterback from large splits.

    The defense gets tired, and the offense feels pressure to keep up on the scoreboard without making too many mistakes. It’s doable, obviously — no air raid coach has won a national title, after all — but for coaches with harder jobs, being able to define the game is awfully appealing.

    The system also works. Or at least, it can.

    Art Briles converted Baylor from doormat to conference champion with his version.
    Mike Leach has taken teams to 13 bowls in 15 years.
    Dana Holgorsen has a couple of 10-win seasons at West Virginia.
    Kevin Sumlin (a strong recruiter) has won fewer than eight games just once in eight years as a head coach.
    Air raid father Hal Mumme rode the system to two bowls at Kentucky when the school had been through a mostly destitute 15 years.
    There’s another appeal, at least in hindsight: it’s hard to replace your system with something else.

    In replacing two air raid coaches (first Mumme, then Guy Morriss) at Kentucky, Rich Brooks won nine games in three years before building traction. (NCAA sanctions didn’t help.)
    In succeeding Briles and Sumlin at Houston, Tony Levine went 5-7 in his first year and couldn’t top 8-5 before getting dismissed.
    After Sonny Dykes went 17-8 in his final two years at Louisiana Tech, Skip Holtz dealt with a 4-8 reset when Dykes went to Cal.
    Ruffin McNeill won between five and eight games for most of his tenure at ECU, which was deemed unacceptable; afterward, Scottie Montgomery went 3-9 in his first year.
    After ranking in the S&P+ top 30 for five straight years before Leach got fired, Texas Tech fell to 60th and 86th in its first two years under Tommy Tuberville.
    Is this purely anecdotal? Of course. But it makes some sense that a stark culture change could create issues, especially if a defense-first coach is taking over a let-’er-rip system. Tuberville, for instance, tried to install defensive principles while maintaining the attack that fans loved, and it was never a natural fit.

    That Cal and Dykes parted wasn’t surprising. Dykes’ performance didn’t earn him a dismissal — the Bears won eight games in 2015, and the step back to 5-7 in 2016 was predictable, considering the massive turnover. But his constant flirtation with other schools and his apparent disinterest in finding a new defensive coordinator eventually got him pushed out. I say “eventually” because while the move wasn’t completely unexpected, it came late in the 2016-17 carousel.

    Regardless, the school found a suitable replacement on paper. Wilcox played defensive back at Oregon, got his breakthrough under Jeff Tedford at Cal, and has spent 13 of his 16 years as a coach either in the Pac-12 or at Boise State. He knows the West, and in his 11 years as a coordinator, has produced five top-25 Def. S&P+ rankings.

    Good defense has become a foreign concept in Berkeley. Wilcox takes over a team that, over the last three seasons, averaged rankings of 12th in Off. S&P+ and 101st in Def. S&P+. Though air raid teams can play decent defense, that was never the case for Dykes. Wilcox has never had a defense that ranked worse than 54th, so something will have to give.

    Wilcox is trying his best to avoid a Year Zero situation; his hire of 3-4 guru Deruyter made plenty of sense, considering Wilcox’s 3-4 roots, but he also brought in former Eastern Washington head coach Baldwin to coordinate the offense.

    Though technically not a branch on the air raid tree, Baldwin’s EWU teams were prolific and successful. In total yardage, Baldwin’s last four EWU teams had an average ranking of fourth in FCS on offense and 101st on defense. They won at least 11 games three times in that span and four times overall.

    There’s nothing saying the balance can’t work, but pulling off a successful first year could be tricky. Baldwin’s first Cal offense will be without last year’s starting quarterback, leading rusher, leading receiver, and five linemen who combined for 120 career starts. There’s far more continuity on defense, for better or worse, but the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 can be awkward if the size balance isn’t right.

    There’s enough talent to think Cal can eke out a minor bowl bid, but I’ll withhold expectations until year two.


    --by Bill Connelly

  2. #2
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    Cal Golden Bears
    Head coach: Wilcox (first year)

    2016 record and S&P+ ranking: 5-7 (51st)

    Projected 2017 record and S&P+ ranking: 5-7 (55th)

    Biggest strength: New offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin never had a problem scoring points on Pac-12 teams at Eastern Washington, and he never had receivers the caliber of Demetris Robinson in Cheney.

    Biggest question mark:
    Cal hasn’t had a top-50 defense since 2012. How quickly can Wilcox and coordinator Tim DeRuyter clean up that mess?

    Biggest 2017 game: The visit from Ole Miss (Sept. 16) looms. Without a win over the Rebels, the Bears could start 1-5 and be out of bowl contention by early October.

    Summary: Because of a rugged road slate (UNC, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Stanford, and UCLA), Wilcox’s first year probably won’t feature many wins, but if he improves the defense and maintains offensive firepower, he could have the Bears set up for 2018 and beyond.

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