Texas is favored by three points in tonight's Holiday Bowl in San Diego. But there are sound reasons to favor underdog Cal in this battle of 7-5 teams.
This is not the usual Cal team that plays well in the first part of the season and then fizzles in the second half. This time the Bears won three out of their last four, the lone loss to a superior Stanford team by only three points. So Cal is bolstered by something new--late-season momentum. On the other hand, Texas started strong but limped down the home stretch. Momentum is not on its side.
The Texas offense was the problem. Starting QB Garrett Gilbert clashed with coach Mack Brown and quit the team, leaving the Longhorns to alternate inexperienced youngsters, David Ash and Cash McCoy, who have not been impressive. Both running backs, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, were banged up late in the season, which slowed the offense even more. Both RBs, however, should be healthy for this game.
What success Texas has had is mostly due to its rugged defense, which is ranked third nationally. That defense is Texas' ace in the hole. It could derail the Cal offense, which is based on the running of mini powerhouse Isi Sofele (1,270 yards, 9 TDs) and the passing of Zach Maynard. After a shaky mid season, Maynard calmed sown, improved his accuracy and stopped throwing picks. What happened is that Cal coach Jeff Tedford shifted the offensive emphasis to the running and took some of the pressure off Maynard.
Cal's defense, which is ranked 14th, is among the best in the country. It has blossomed in the second half, holding three out of the last six opponents to ten points or less. Strongest against the run, it's been vulnerable to quality passing attacks which, however, Texas doesn't have.
Something else in Cal's favor: normally a notoriously bad road team, the Bears have played much better on the road this season. Also, because the game is being played in the Bears' home state, Cal has a slight home field advantage.
The key to the game, aside from the usual X factor, turnovers, is the performance of QB Maynard. If he plays well, which means making smart decisions and few mistakes, Cal should win. Quite simply, betting on Cal is betting on Maynard.
Another tip. Though Holiday Bowls traditionally have been shooutouts, this one, because of the two potent defenses, shapes up as a more low-scoring contest. That means it makes sense to bet the under--47.5.