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Holiday Bowl Preview
by Hollywood Sports - 12/24/2011
California faces off against Texas in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium on December 28th in a game between two teams with a number of similarities which should make this an intriguing matchup. Both of these perennial college football powers should be at full attention for this game after both missed out on a bowl opportunity last season. Jeff Tedford returned twelve starters from last season's disappointing 5-7 club but, for the first time in his tenure at Cal, without established returning fixtures at quarterback or running back positions. Mack Brown also returned twelve starters from a 5-7 team which was a startling result for a program that had been in the BCS Championship Game the year before. While both of these proud programs were hoping for quick turnarounds from those subpar seasons, the Golden Bears and the Longhorns concluded their regular seasons with 7-5 seasons that included 4-5 sub-.500 records in conference play. But that is where the similarities end as Cal closed out their season by winning three of their last four games highlighted by a narrow 3-point loss at Stanford while Texas ended their season by losing three of their last four games. So while it is the Golden Bears who enter this game with momentum, it is the Longhorns who are ranked 24th in the BCS standings. The answers to five questions will likely determine the outcome of this game.
(1) Will Zach Maynard have his way against the tough Texas pass defense?
Maynard transferred to Cal from Buffalo and looked lackluster in his three opportunities to end the 2010 season for the Golden Bears. After securing the starting job this season, Maynard completed just 53.4% of his passes along with throwing ten interceptions to just twelve touchdowns in his first eight games this season. He was certainly in danger of losing his job but Tedford lacked credible backup options so he stuck with Maynard. Perhaps the adversity helped Maynard as he stepped up his game by completing 68.1% of his passes over his last four games while tossing five TD passes to just one interception over that stretch. And while it may be tempting to dismiss his 20 of 27 effort along with 241 passing yards against a porous Arizona State defense, his 20 of 29 performance for 290 yards the week before against Stanford is a strong rebuttal that Maynard was just benefiting from facing a suspect defense. There is no question that Maynard has two talented receiving options in All-Pac 12 wide receiver Keenan Allen (105.1 YPG, 12th in the FBS) and three-year starter Marvin Jones. However, Maynard will be challenged here by what may very well be the most talented defense he has faced all season. The Longhorns held their opponents to just 315.3 total YPG which was the top statistical mark in the Big 12 and the 15th best in the FBS. Texas' pass defense surrendered only 211.7 passing YPG (46th in the FBS) and their defensive pass efficiency was 14th best in the FBS. If Maynard can continue to lead the Golden Bears' offense to score close to the 32.0 clip that they did in their last four contests, Cal will likely overwhelm the points Texas will likely put up on the scoreboard.
(2) Can Isi Sofele open things up for Cal passing attack against the stout Texas run defense?
One of the reasons that Maynard's passing production improved over his last four games was Tedford's increased commitment to the Golden Bears' rushing attack. While Sofele certainly had talent, there remained questions as to whether he was durable enough to handle more carries. Maynard was called on to run the ball more out of their spread formation. Sofele thrived in this environment as he enjoyed his best four games of the season down the stretch by averaging 142 YPG to achieve an impressive 1266 rushing yards this season. Certainly Maynard was more effective in the passing game given the increasing threat Sofele represented. But Sofele will be challenged by a very strong Longhorns' run defense that was the 11th most stingy in the FBS by limiting their opponents to only 103.7 rushing YPG. If Sofele cannot his the Cal ground game going, Maynard may revert back to his earlier season form.
(3) Will Cal's woes away from home continue?
Cal long ago earned the reputation for owning a strong home field advantage whose quality of play declines when not playing in comfortable environments. In theory, this notion was to be tested this season since the renovations in the Golden Bears' Memorial Stadium were forcing Cal to play most of their home games in San Francisco's AT&T Park. Yet the Golden Bears won five of their six home contests this season. But once again, Cal struggled on the road where they lost four of their six games by an average margin of -7.3 points. What has been particularly puzzling has been how ineffective the Golden Bears defense has been away from home under the guidance of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. This season, Cal allowed 34.5 PPG along with a whopping 470.3 total YPG away from home which are far cries away from their 24.4 PPG and 339.4 total YPG seasonal averages for all their games. So while this game is played on the neutral field in San Diego, the fact that the Golden Bears were outgained by an average of -84.5 YPG when away from home remains very concerning for Cal. For comparisons sake, Texas was 3-2 on the road this season with a +3.6 net point differential and a +11.0 YPG differential versus their opponents.
(4) Can Texas score enough points?
Entering the season, the two most important players for Texas on the offensive side of the football were quarterback Garrett Gilbert and runny back Fozzie Whitaker. Neither will play in this game. Gilbert was benched after a slow start this season and he eventually transferred out of the program under the weight of the high expectations expected of him. Whitaker was a 5th year senior who started the season at the top of the depth chart at running back while also being a keep weapon in special teams before suffering a season-ending injury. The loss of these two players embodied the failure of this Texas program to stay at the elite level it had been at over the last handful of years under Brown. There were very capable answers for the Longhorns at running back with two blue-chip freshmen in Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron yet both have endured injury-plagues rookie seasons. The answers were not as evident at quarterback with sophomore Case McCoy (Colt's younger brother) and freshman David Ash. McCoy is the better passer with his 61.4% completion rating and his 7.21 YPA average while tossing seven TDs to just four interceptions. Yet McCoy has failed to move the offense throughout much of the season which has made Ash's mobility to run the ball an attractive option. Yet Ash completes only 56.0% of his passes with a 6.17 YPA average and he threw eight interceptions to just 3 TD passes which likely means McCoy will get the majority of snaps in this game. The good news for the Longhorns is that Brown and Bergeron are both listed as probable for this game as of this writing (although that does not guarantee that they are at 100%). Texas will need to establish their running game to take pressure off whoever plays quarterback against a Cal team that really gets after the QB. Led by the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year in Mychal Kendricks, the Golden Bears were 15th in the FBS by generating 32 sacks while also ranking 5th in the FBS by averaging 7.67 tackles-for-loss per game. Those are scary numbers for a Longhorns defense that allowed 26 quarterback sacks this season.
(5) Is Texas above Cal's weight class?
It was just a two short years ago that the Longhorns were playing for the BCS Championship. While Cal's 5-7 record last season snapped their eight-straight winning seasons under Teford, he has not had a team approach the same heights that the Golden Bears did way back in 2004 when they won ten games. These teams have one common opponent in UCLA this season with the results not looking good for Cal as they lost to the Bruins by a 31-17 score while Texas blew them out by a 49-20 score. But keep in mind that the Longhorns were motivated by revenge after UCLA beat them on their home field the year before and this will be a much different Texas team that will take the field for this one as the one that defeated UCLA in mid-September. With Oregon, Stanford and USC competing in the Pac-12, Cal may have endured a more difficult conference season. However, with the Ducks and Cardinal earning BCS bowl bids and the Trojans not being eligible for any bowl this season, Cal was able to jump up a few places in line for a more prestigious bowl than they normally would have been offered. Of course, that may be a fortuitous opportunity for a streaking team this time of season.
Both these teams want to use this game as a building-block for next season. It is interesting that both of these head coaches will likely find themselves deeper on the hot seat if they do not see improved records next season. This is a bowl game with much at stake for both programs moving forward. Texas opened as a 3.5-4 point favorite with the Total set at 48/47.5. As of this writing, the Longhorns look likely to stay entrenched as a field goal favorite with the Total set at most locations at 47.5. With this being the lone football game for Wednesday evening, this prime-time game between two well-known programs promises to receive plenty of attention from bettors. Best of luck -- Frank.