Cal Bears Football: My Contribution To the Infinite Regress
At 4-1 with seven fat Pac-10 games to go, Cal is once again ranked, once again in first place in the conference, and once again besot with a doubting fanbase wondering just how good (or bad) the team really is.
Why are we still wondering? Because college football is epistemologically… well, complicated. The future is unknown. The past is impenetrable.
Consider: to answer how good you are, you look at the games you’ve played. And to assess those games, you look at the quality of the competition. And to assess the quality of the competition, you look at their competition, and so on.
In other words, mere records are deceptive because they ignore strength of schedule. But strength of schedule is deceptive, unless it takes into account the records and competition of one’s competition.
And if you follow that reasoning too far, you wind up with a muddle of contradictions and a world in which every team has approximately the same strength of schedule because every team plays competition that plays competition that plays competition drawn from the same interconnected pool of something like 150 teams.
This is also one of the main reasons why the BCS never works out.
Now, having set out the philosophical limitations of our inquiry, let us go forth into an examination of what our past and our future appear to tell us about the 2008 edition of the California Golden Bears.
Our Past Through Its Future
What we know about Michigan State (6-1, 3-0)
Since losing the season opener to Cal, the Spartans have been spotless. They boast the nation’s leading rusher and a darkhorse Heisman candidate in Javon Ringer.
Aside from being undefeated against all non-Cal competition, MSU has posted wins over Notre Dame (whose only other loss was to No. 18/21 North Carolina) and the previously-undefeated Northwestern (albeit previously-undefeated against jokey competition).
What Michigan State tells us about Cal
Cal held Ringer to 81 yards rushing. Since that game, Ringer has averaged more than twice that at about 172 ypg. In other words, the 3-4 works, Cal is capable of shutting down any rushing attack in the nation, Cal D great!
What we know about Washington State (1-6, 0-4)
What Wazzu tells us about Cal
We’re slightly better at beating up Wazzu than Oregon and Oregon State were. Although, as I noted after the game, our rout of Wazzu was the most decisive conference win in Cal history, that really says more about Wazzu than about Cal.
What we know about Maryland (4-2, 1-1)
They’re erratic. Maryland has famously beat ranked Cal and Clemson, but inexplicably lost to Middle Tennessee and, in perhaps the most shocking result of the year so far, got shut out 31-0 by an atrocious Virginia team.
It’s possible that Maryland has a problem with looking ahead (the loss to Middle Tennessee was immediately before the matchup with Cal and the loss to Virginia preceded this weeks matchup with No. 21/19 Wake Forest).
Another possibility is that Maryland’s competition has been misjudged. Perhaps Clemson just isn’t as good as people thought (having themselves just lost to Wake and having just fired head coach Tommy Bowden) and maybe Virginia isn’t as terrible as they seemed (losses to Duke and UConn no longer look so bad, and UVa did just knock off former cinderella East Carolina by more than two touchdowns).
What Maryland tells us about Cal
Bears hate humidity. Other than that, Cal is capable of losing—not just to a U$C—but to any reasonably skilled BCS-conference team that happens to execute on a day when Cal doesn’t.
Cal also has the ability to come back against a skilled team when it does execute. Unfortunately, it was too little too late. Also, Cal’s D has a much tougher time against a balanced offensive attack than one that goes one-dimensional.
What we know about Colorado State (3-3, 1-1)
At 50 percent on the season and in conference, the Rams have won two games by three points apiece, and lost another game by six.
Their only decisive win was a 41-28 victory over UNLV (the same UNLV that beat Arizona State in OT), and their only decisive losses were the opener to Colorado and the rout at Cal.
What CSU tells us about Cal
Cal has enough talent and explosiveness on defense to rout mediocre teams regardless of how the Cal offense performs. That’s worth keeping in mind for future games against some of the Pac-10’s less fortunate. It’s less comforting when it comes to above-average competition.
What we know about Arizona State (2-4, 0-2)
Talented, but hopelessly flawed. ASU is in the midst of a four game losing streak that began with an inexcusable OT loss to UNLV, that then meandered through drubbings by Georgia, Cal and, in a 28-0 shutout, U$C.
That last loss is tempered a bit by the fact that, in injuring Carpenter, Cal softened up ASU’s best (okay, only) offensive threat. In any case, ASU doesn’t look to be anywhere near a complete team capable of competing in the Pac-10.
What ASU tells us about Cal
Cal’s defense is about as efficient at shutting down a quality one-dimensional passing attack as it was at shutting down a one-dimensional rushing attack. If Cal’s offense can achieve its own balance and rhythm, it’s definitely capable of putting points on the board.
Our Future Through Its Past
The inconsistency of the Pac-10’s performance makes it difficult to draw many conclusions about the teams we have yet to face. Each has either lost a game it had no business losing (Arizona @ New Mexico/Stanford, Oregon v. Boise State, U$C at Oregon State, Oregon State @ Stanford) or has otherwise been dramatically routed by a mediocre team (UCLA @ Utah, Stanford @ ASU, UDubb against anyone). This tells us that any of the teams we face is capable of going down… but so are we.
The most frightening feature of our future through its past: Stanford has already played four Pac-10 games, and has won three of them. The Axe comes first people, and let’s not forget it.
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