UNC's kickoff against Cal offers coast-to-coast questions
Posted August 7
If California’s transcontinental trip to UNC doesn’t qualify as the most unconventional opening game on this season’s national college football schedule, it has to be a contender.
Not only have the two schools never faced each other in football, the Sept. 2 (12:20 p.m., ACC Network) game in Chapel Hill almost was scrubbed on the launchpad by political differences between the California general assembly and North Carolina’s controversial HB2, which required that all people use the bathroom that corresponded to the gender on their birth certificate.
Citing the stipulation of a previously signed game contract, California’s travel ban by state-funded colleges to eight states eventually was lifted, and North Carolina has since revised the law.
Ironically, the Golden Bears will face Ole Miss in another early-season, non-conference game when the Rebels visit Berkeley on Sept. 16. Mississippi is also on the travel ban list, but the return game in Oxford isn’t slated until 2019 and likely will be played. Carolina is scheduled to play at Cal in the return game on Sept. 1, 2018, a week before the Tar Heels are supposed to be in Greenville to face ECU on Sept. 8.
Call it the Oddball Bowl or Frequent Flyer Football. Whatever, the approaching game will find the Heels and Cal with twin worlds of personnel mysteries.
While reworking almost all of his offensive skill positions in preseason camp, UNC coach Larry Fedora and his staff face the challenge of pulling together a scouting report on the Bears right out of thin air.
The game will mark Cal’s Justin Wilcox’s first ever as a head coach, and other than the fact that he’s been a defensive assistant most of his coaching career, there’s not much football DNA for Carolina’s coaches to sort through.
The Tar Heels should win, of course, and likely with some ease. Cal, as usual, is expected to be among the weakest Pac-12 teams. The Bears are picked for last in the league’s North after having gone 5-7 overall (3-6 conference) last season under Sonny Dykes.
Dykes’ 2015 team went 8-5 (4-5), routed Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl and seemed to be moving up but a late-season, four-game losing streak eroded the administration’s confidence in the native Texan. Aside from the record, Cal athletic director Mike Williams said the coach never fully settled into the “Cal experience, Bay Area” experience.
Cal’s hope is that Wilcox, a 40-year-old former Oregon defensive back, can match the success produced by Jeff Tedford, who went 82-57 from 2002-12. The only other Bear head football coach since 1977 to exit with a winning record was Bruce Snyder, who went 29-24-4 over five seasons before jumping to Arizona State in 1992.
Under Dykes, Cal developed a dynamic offense that averaged 37.5 points in 2016 but stopped almost no one until a season-ending 36-10 win over UCLA.
Wilcox inherited some skill-position experience from Dykes, but there will be a totally inexperienced starting quarterback to replace Davis Webb from 2016, and the new staff obviously is in no hurry to give UNC a tip.
The leading contenders reportedly are redshirt sophomore Ross Bowers, redshirt junior Chase Forrest and freshman Chase Garbers, a highly rated passer who stood by his commitment after Dykes was axed.
It’s not even clear what sort of offensive tactics the Bears will use early in the season. Wilcox brought in Beau Baldwin, who had spent his entire 22-year career at Central Washington and Eastern Washington, to operate the offense. While he was head coach at Eastern Washington from 2008 through ’16, Baldwin’s teams won six Big Sky titles and the 2010 nation FCS championship and gained a reputation for developing quarterbacks.
By the time Carolina gets to Cal in 2018, the Bears’ quarterback very well could be Brandon McIlwain, from Newton, Pa., who started his college career at South Carolina. A former Pennsylvania player of the year, he passed for 600 yards and two touchdowns for the Gamecocks in 2016 but is ineligible this season.
Fedora is using much the same strategy with his quarterbacks, although senior transfer Brandon Harris from LSU does have starting experience.
It’s unlikely but possible that both teams will go all the way to game week before announcing a QB starter, and in Cal’s case, maybe all the way until kickoff time.
Either way, it all adds up to an unusual dose of season-opening intrigue from coast to coast.