Fast start, stud QB, imposing slate make Cal a must-watch in October
Two seasons ago, Cal won one game. This year, the Golden Bears have jumped out to a 4-0 start and are ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 2009. Sonny Dykes’ team has a star QB in junior Jared Goff, an explosive offense and an improved defense. It is also in a Pac-12 North division that seems more wide open than ever.
No question Dykes’ program has come a long way in a year-plus, but just how far the Bears have come — and how far they can go — remains a big question mark. That’s why I think there is no more intriguing team in the country in the month of October than Cal.
The Bears are a heavy favorite to move to 5-0 this weekend with a home game against Washington State, an 18-point underdog. After the visit from the Cougars is when things get really interesting.
Next week, Cal visits undefeated Utah, coming off the Utes’ destruction of Oregon. The week after that, the Bears go on the road again to face another unbeaten top-10 opponent in UCLA. Then, they close out the month hosting a talented USC team. It’s a stretch to think Cal can win two of those three, but with a quarterback as talented as Goff, the Bears have a puncher’s chance. Keep in mind Cal hasn’t won an outright conference title in football since 1958.
Goff has completed more than 69 percent of his passes and has 11 TDs and just three INTs for an offense that averages 46 points per game. In 2014, he threw for almost 4,000 yards and had a 35-7 TD-INT ratio.
"He’s playing lights-out," Dykes told FOX Sports earlier this week. "He has a better understanding of the offense, and he’s improved his decision-making and his anticipation.
"He’s also developed into the best leader in our program. He’s handled everything with a ton of maturity, and he has a real calming influence."
Goff, the son of former major-league catcher Jerry Goff, learned at a young age about leadership from his old man, who taught the QB how to handle people.
"He said, ‘You can’t be the same with everyone. You have to get on people differently,’ " the younger Goff recalled. "When he was a catcher, he said, ‘Sometimes you have to MF ’em. Sometimes you have to be gentle because they’ll fall apart.’ It’s the same with receivers, running backs and linemen. I know their personalities and what they respond to."
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Goff is best known for his accuracy and his pocket presence, but his leadership will be tested in those tough road environments later this month. Dykes has been around several talented QBs before, including former Pro Bowler Nick Foles.
"Jared’s got a quicker release," Dykes said when asked how his current quarterback compares to his former Arizona star. "I don’t know if (Goff) can throw the ball quite as far, but he can make more of the intermediate throws. He’s also probably a little more accurate. Nick was as tough as anybody I’ve ever seen, and Jared is close to that."
Another plus for Cal has been an improving defense. The Bears did give up a bunch of yards on the road at Texas two weeks ago, but they have shown a knack for getting turnovers. Cal leads the nation in turnovers gained with 14. The Bears gained only 17 in all of last year (No. 94), and that’s one more than they gained in 2013 (No. 116).
Dykes’ explanation for that: "It’s more of a product of being in the right place. We’re running to the ball and playing hard, and we’re also putting some pressure on people."
They’re also a lot better in the secondary with corners Darius Allensworth and Darius White. Up front, James Looney and Kyle Kragen have also become difference-makers on the D-line.
If the Bears defense can continue to be respectable, don’t bet against Goff and a dynamic group of receivers staying in the Top 25. And if that happens, Cal’s quarterback also figures to be a legit Heisman contender.
"It’s all about us being able to win," Dykes said. "If we can keep winning, he definitely deserves to be in the conversation."
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FS1. He is also a New York Times best-selling author. His new book, “The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks,” came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.