Mailbag: Can Cal get to .500?

Last mailbag from me for a couple weeks. Enjoy. And follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

Lawrence in Inglewood, Calif., writes: Each week, I scroll through the mailbag, hoping to see a Cal logo, and alas, nothing. So here's this: Sonny Dykes didn't get stupid overnight, and we all know about the injuries. Art "Not Andy" Kaufman has a history of taking abysmal D's and turning them into mid-30s-ranked Ds. Add that there's been quite a bit of addition by subtraction (players who were athletically gifted, but not necessarily tough football players) and can't you see Cal being the surprise team in the Pac-12? I know that Uncle Ted curses us every year, but I have a feeling that the points are going up to the mid- to high-30s, and the points against, are going to be in the mid- to low-30s, meaning a W-L of around .500. What say you all?

Kevin Gemmell: All you have to do is ask.

Can Cal be a .500 team? Sure. It’s possible. Will they be? Not sure. You’re right, not everything falls on Dykes. Remember, he was one of the most sought-after head coaches in the country when Cal hired him. But as you mentioned, the injuries sustained last year would be apocalyptic to almost any program.

Here’s what Cal has working for it: A quarterback who has a year of experience and a really, really good receiving corps. Recall, the issue wasn’t moving the ball last year; it was turning that movement into points. The Bears ranked sixth in the conference in total offense, but had just 32 touchdowns. Only Colorado had fewer, with 31. And the Bears ranked last in the league in scoring averaging with just 23 points per game. So where was the breakdown?

You can start with third-down conversions, where Cal was last in the league, converting at just 33.6 percent. So they had trouble keeping drives alive. Conversely, the defense allowed teams to convert at 41.4 percent -- also worst in the league. So you have a team unable to sustain drives while the opponent is sustaining drives. Not a particularly strong recipe for success.

Cal was also at minus-15 in turnovers, gaining just 13 takeaways while giving it away 28 times. And if the Bears did get into the red zone, they came away with points only 72.1 percent of the time.

So you see a trend. But within that trend is hope. Cal has the kind of offense that can move the football. They have talented players returning who can move the football. The next step is moving the football into the zone at the end of the field that’s 10 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide.

Defensively, there’s a lot of work. But also a lot of talent coming back from injury. The Pac-12 blog is excited to see what a healthy Brennan Scarlett can do for a pass rush that produced just 18 sacks last year.

You have to think it’s unlikely that the Bears go winless against an FBS opponent for the second straight year. There has to be one or two of those games where it all comes together and they surprise someone. Can they do that enough to get to .500? Probably not this year.

I’m willing to give Dykes the benefit of the doubt since last season’s rash of injuries was so unprecedented. And he has been pro-active in shuffling the staff. Let’s see if they can get a couple of FBS wins this year, and then maybe in 2015 start eyeballing six wins.

Multiple questions from folks on the eight-game vs. nine-game conference schedule, including submissions from 0006shy in Los Angeles, DC in Newport Beach, Wildcat Andy in Phoenix and Jim in Salem, Ore. All with various degrees of inquisitiveness and/or anger.

Kevin Gemmell: My co-writer hates it. I see both sides. Those who really know college football, I believe, knew that the Pac-12 was the deepest conference in the country last year. And had the league played an eight-game schedule, we probably would have seen Utah in the postseason as well, giving the league 10 of 12 teams in the postseason. Yes, that would have helped perception.

The new College Football Playoff, however, puts a fresh spin on things. Because right now the playing field isn’t even. Sure, the SEC has vowed to up its strength of schedule by adding at least one team a year from a power conference. But, come on. Are we really going to see the mythical Oregon-Alabama matchup in the regular season? We hope. But we won’t.

I’ve always enjoyed the fact that when you win the Pac-12, you have really, really earned it. There’s something to be said for that.

The Pac-12 has always been aggressive with its scheduling: whether it’s USC-Ohio State in Week 2 of 2008 and 2009, the league’s regular tie-in with Notre Dame, UCLA’s upcoming game with Texas and Oregon’s upcoming matchup with Michigan State, etc., etc. It goes on. Are there some Pac-12 teams that have had softer schedules than others? Of course. But even Arizona, which has been criticized for hosting a Hostess nonconference schedule the last couple of years, scheduled Oklahoma State in 2011 and ’12. Heck, Washington State went into Auburn last year and almost knocked off the team that played in the national championship.

So should the league switch? With the SEC’s latest gambit, it’s clear that the playing field is not going to be as even as we had hoped as we move into the playoff era. That’s unfortunate. I think the Pac-12 has to do what it believes will best protect its interests -- on the field and in the wallet.

Colleague Adam Rittenberg, of B1G blog fame, and my better half Ted Miller, debated this very point yesterday -- with an emphasis on the inequity of the system. And, per usual, they did a fine job.

From Miller:

The only thing that matters is the SEC's massive con that games the system as we move toward the College Football Playoff: The SEC will maintain its eight-game conference schedule when other major conferences are -- or are planning to -- play nine conference games.

That is the only thing that matters, and this is nothing more than the SEC giving itself an annual advantage by deciding that it will eliminate seven losses from its standings.

Honestly, when you get right down to it, all I really care about is equity. I think we can all get on board with that. But with the SEC’s latest move, it’s clear we’re not going to get it.

Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, You would be crazy not to vote UCLA as the pick in the South. They return a top-notch QB and most of their defense. ASU lost too much on defense, and SC has a new coach and scheme. It's going to be fun to see how it plays out. Keep up the good work. All joking aside, I really enjoy reading you and your sidekick, Teddy -- and the new folks, too. Peace out.

Kevin Gemmell: Crazy, huh? Vote for UCLA? No … that’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do …

Honestly, we still have a couple of months before we submit our preseason ballots for the media poll. Those are tough to gauge. It’s not like anyone ever goes 12-for-12 in picking the teams. Oh wait …

There’s a lot to like about UCLA. But there’s also a lot to like about USC, ASU and Arizona. Even Utah, assuming it gets Travis Wilson back, was on the verge of beating UCLA and ASU last year. Playing in SLC is not easy.

As you noted, the Bruins have a tremendous amount of talent returning on both sides of the ball. But one thing you can never account for is injury. And if something happens to Brett Hundley that slows him down even 25 percent (like what happened, say, to Marcus Mariota last year), it could put a damper on the Bruins. Hundley is remarkably durable, but he’s taken more hits over the last two years than any other quarterback in FBS football. The backup plan has to be a concern.

With USC, I’m excited about the defense. Justin Wilcox did wonders in just two years in Washington with three- and four-star players. Now he’s sinking his claws into four- and five-star guys. USC had the No. 3 scoring defense in the league last year. I’d be surprised if that drops off.

ASU, tons of offense. But the defensive youth gives me pause. Arizona, tons of skill players. But the lack of separation among quarterbacks is also a concern.

So yes, UCLA has the fewest question marks of the South teams. And chances are I will vote them No. 1 in the South when I fill out my media ballot. However, 2-4 is awfully interesting.