Auburn football opponent preview: Cal Golden Bears

Auburn football will have a Pac-12 After Dark affair for their 2nd game of the season when they take on Cal -- let’s talk about it Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Auburn football will have a Pac-12 After Dark affair for their 2nd game of the season when they take on Cal -- let’s talk about it Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s that time again ladies and gents: there’s another opponent on the 2023 Auburn football schedule to examine as the season rapidly approaches.

Let’s look at the second opponent that the Tigers will face this season: the California Golden Bears.

Cal coaching staff

Justin Wilcox enters his seventh season in Berkeley at 30-36. While his record indicates he’s not that good of a coach, it hasn’t been for lack of passion and effort. Cal has been thoroughly outclassed in the talent department ever since quarterbacks Jared Goff and Davis Webb were drafted in back-to-back years.

Goff threw for 4,714 yards and 43 touchdowns in his final season. Webb, in his lone season at Cal, threw for 4,295 yards and 37 touchdowns. Shortly after, current TCU head coach Sonny Dykes was fired from his post as Cal’s head man, and in came Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.

Wilcox has done an excellent job of separating his background from who he’s hired as his coordinators. We’ll discuss that in the next section. Wilcox is known as a fiery competitor and expects a lot out of his players. Don’t expect him to bend the knee to anyone.

At the offensive coordinator spot, the Bears employ noted spread enthusiast Jake Spavital. After an unsuccessful stint as Texas State’s head coach, Wilcox hired him to replace previous coordinator Bill Musgrave. Spavital has coached numerous record-breaking quarterbacks and has coordinated numerous high-octane offenses. Look for this to be a big part of the game.

Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon has served in various roles at Cal since 2018 when he was hired onto Wilcox’s second-year staff as inside linebackers coach. Next to Wilcox, he’s the longest-tenured coach on the staff.

Cal on offense

Cal, under Wilcox, has been a mixed bag offensively. From 2017-2019, former Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin held the post. His desire was to install a high-tempo spread attack that was based on 10 personnel (one running back, no tight ends, and four wide receivers). While his scheme ran wild at Eastern, he was not as successful at Cal and was fired after the 2019 season.

In came Bill Musgrave from the NFL with a pure west coast scheme. It was not effective. Three seasons of averaging less than 400 yards of offense led to his dismissal before the end of the 2022 season. And now we arrive at the Spavital era.

Jake Spavital is in his 2nd stint as Cal’s offensive coordinator, having been Davis Webb’s play-caller in 2016. He got his start as a graduate assistant under none other than Tulsa offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. While he has spent the majority of his career under air raid coaches like Dana Holgorsen, Kevin Sumlin, and Sonny Dykes, the Malzahn influence is still heavy in his scheme.

That Malzahn influence shows up in the usage of mostly 3 wide receiver sets with a tight end lined up at H-back. While Malzahn prefers a blocking fullback at the position, Spavital has taken the traditional tight end and molded him into a dual-threat blocker/receiver who can stay on the field at all times. This allows them to go incredibly fast and run every formation out of the same personnel grouping.

The run game is also Malzahn reincarnate. A combination of inside zone, power, and counter can be expected. Where this offense gets excited is the RPOs.

Spavital runs his RPOs much like Auburn football’s own Philip Montgomery and Hugh Freeze. The majority of them are hitch routes to advance the football. But Spavital has one little wrinkle: he sends a receiver downfield on just about every play. If he gets into a 1 on 1 with no safety help, the QB has a downfield shot. Thanks to the NCAA’s three-yard downfield rule for linemen, this schematic works.

This is almost like Art Briles and Josh Heupel when they look to isolate a single receiver deep and everyone else just occupies their corner. The only difference is that it doesn’t appear to be a choice route for the receiver.

Cal’s biggest issue right now is the offensive line. All of their QBs were running for their lives in the spring game. If Ron Roberts can live up to his reputation of blitzing just because he’s a sicko, then Auburn will be able to create negative plays and potential turnovers.

Related Story. Former Auburn QB commit lands at UAB. light

Cal on defense

Peter Sirmon has called the defense for the Bears for the last three seasons. Until this past year, that was a good thing. 2022 was a black eye for Cal football as a whole, and the defense did them no favors. Now, if we look around the PAC12, the quarterbacks they had to face last year were pretty legit:

Caleb Williams
Bo Nix
Michael Penix Jr.
Jayden de Laura
Dorian Thompson-Robinson
Tanner McKee
Cameron Ward
Cam Rising

Those eight quarterbacks combined to average 3604 passing yards, 27 passing touchdowns, 272 rushing yards, and 7 rushing touchdowns. The Pac-12 was absolutely loaded at quarterback, and guess what? Cam Rising is the only QB they didn’t face last year.

That is broken. It’s fair to not question Sirmon as a defensive coordinator with that schedule. Even more so when you consider that they also faced Drew Pyne of Notre Dame, who threw for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns in just 11 games.

Defensively they are aggressive, owing to Wilcox’s background at Wisconsin under Paul Chryst, but it’s clear that they’re affected by dynamic quarterbacks. Hmmm…. I wonder if Auburn football has one of those.

Oh, wait. We do. Two of them actually. Expect Robby Ashford to have packages even if he doesn’t beat out Payton Thorne for the job. Both can run. Ashford can fly.

Wrapping up the Cal-Auburn football 2023 Week 2 matchup

Just as with the previous preview, I will not predict games until the week of, but I do see this one getting ugly quickly based on what we saw from Cal last year and what we’ve seen Auburn football head coach Hugh Freeze do in the portal.

Talent has been Cal’s bugaboo for quite some time, and I doubt they bridge the gap even between a program in its first year of a full rebuild.

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