While the gap between the haves and have-nots in big-boy football seems to be widening by the year, the gap between the best programs in the FCS and the also-rans in FBS is closing.
Last season, 10 FCS teams secured victories against FBS opponents, and half of those wins came against foes from Power 5 conferences.
Not all of those victories came against teams that were bottom-feeders in their conferences, either. While Richmond beating Virginia and Northern Iowa knocking off Iowa State weren’t too surprising, three other FBS teams went on to bowl appearances after early season losses to FCS opponents.
Northwestern, Iowa and Washington State (for the second straight season) also suffered the ignominy of losing to an FCS opponent. However, all three of those teams ended up with winning records in 2016.
There are no two ways around it: the California Golden Bears are going to be bad this season. Former head coach Sonny Dykes made no bones about the struggles during his four years at the school. After openly flirting with other programs during his time in Berkeley, the school fired him this offseason.
Unlike other openings in power conferences, there were no big names that were interested in the Cal job. The Golden Bears ended up settling on Justin Wilcox, an assistant coach with ties to the university. Wilcox was probably the best hire they could make and will make the defense better at the very least. It’s not hard to improve the year after giving up 42.8 points and 518 yards per contest, but Wilcox called the shots for the best scoring defense in the country last season at Wisconsin.
Cal’s offense is going to take a big step back without Dykes, though. He knew how to develop quarterbacks and could score points on almost any defense in the nation. The fact that Davis Webb won the job last year after transferring to Cal in May says something about what Wilcox has to work with here.
None of the options to start are particularly pleasing. Chase Forrest is the most seasoned, having played in three games in 2015, while Ross Bowers saw the field but didn’t throw a pass last season.
The offensive line is going to be an issue, too. Only one starter returns from last season and that’s center Addison Ooms. Cal took a big hit this offseason when it was announced that last year’s starting right guard, Dwayne Wallace, would not be returning to the team as he was arguably its best lineman last season.
It’s going to take some time for the defense to get going for the Golden Bears. The unit was very lightly recruited under Dykes, and there isn’t much talent at any position. There’s little chance of a freshman making an immediate impact either, as Cal had the worst recruiting class of any power conference school this offseason.
All of that bodes well for Weber State. The Wildcats are going to be undervalued in this game after going 7-5 last season. The Wildcats were better than that record indicated, losing games they probably should have won on the road against both Dakota schools.
Weber State has a lot of talent around new quarterback Stefan Cantwell. He didn’t see the field much last season, but he was the second-leading passer in the junior college ranks in 2015. He has been very impressive through the first few days of practice, and head coach Jay Hill is excited about his potential. Cantwell doesn’t have to be great with this team, he just has to be efficient and let his talented teammates do the rest.
The Wildcats have a fantastic trio of tight ends and will use them to exploit mismatches against Cal and the other opponents on their schedule. The group is led by Andrew Vollert, a transfer from San Jose State who was fantastic last season. He caught 62 passes for 840 yards and seven touchdowns and was named a preseason FCS All-American this year. Cal’s linebackers are going to have a hard time covering these tight ends.
Weber State’s front seven is capable of exploiting Cal’s inexperience along the defensive line, too. Landon Stice and Emmett Tela are very talented linebackers that have been very good over the course of their careers. They can hold Cal’s running game in check and make the Golden Bears rely on their inexperienced quarterbacks.
This game comes at a really awkward time for Cal. The Golden Bears start the season with a road game at North Carolina and then must face Weber State before hosting Ole Miss the next week. Cal is going to have less time to prep for this game than Weber State and won’t take it as seriously as it does UNC and Ole Miss. That’s typically one of the key ingredients in an FCS over FBS upset special and will lead to Weber State pulling out a win over a Cal team that might finish the season winless.