One question still unanswered by Dykes hire

Sonny Dykes (Don Feria/GoldenBearSports.com)

Commentary: No longer owning an edge on up-tempo spread offenses, can new head coach Sonny Dykes still elevate California to the next level?

BERKELEY, Calif. – For all the answers Sonny Dykes provided during his sterling introductory press conference Thursday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, he did not address the most significant question for California football.

Where will the Golden Bears be exceptional?

Every truly great team excels in two areas above all others, two things it can rely on when everything else is going wrong. Just look at the roster of BCS bowls, and the theory shines through.

Notre Dame has its dominant red zone defense, which surrendered eight touchdowns in 33 possessions, and ability to avoid negative plays. The Irish allowed just 4.33 tackles for loss per game, keeping quarterback Everett Golson out of dangerous spots and allowing the run game to shine. Alabama has the outstanding decision-making of quarterback A.J. McCarron, the nation's leader in passing efficiency, and lock-down rush defense.

Cal found out first hand where Stanford and Oregon stand, yielding control of both lines of scrimmage in the Big Game, while the Ducks' tempo and timely takeaways allowed them to pull away for a dominant win.

The two areas where Dykes' most recent Louisiana Tech team stood out were its prolific scoring output and exceptional ball security. The latter is essentially random and uncontrollable from year to year. It's no coincidence that six of the Bulldogs' 13 turnovers came in their three losses.

The former was fueled by an emphasis on tempo. LA Tech ran 1,054 plays in its 12 games (an average of 87.8 per game), giving its spread offense more opportunities to attack the weak spots in the opposition. It is a relatively new approach for Dykes, something he added only after bringing Tony Franklin to Ruston, La. as his offensive coordinator.

"We were a no-huddle team at Texas Tech, but didn't necessarily play with a lot of tempo," said Dykes of his formative years under coach Mike Leach. "It was kind of a slower pace of play, and what we've tried to do is take a lot of the same passing game, mix in more run game, and then mix in the tempo element to unsettle defenses.

"It gives offense a lot of different advantages because you can limit the defensive substitutions, limit the scheme, the calls, and you can dictate the pace of play and what defenses are doing to you."

The problem is that Dykes no longer has the franchise on tempo, nor on the spread. not in the same conference with Chip Kelly at Oregon and Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. Even UCLA and Arizona State averaged a whopping 78 plays per game in their first seasons adapting to new offenses.

Dykes aims for balance between the run and pass, which puts his approach more on par with Oklahoma State's downhill power ground game than the spread option approach of the Ducks, but again Pac-12 defenses are becoming more familiar with those schemes. They are retooling to match, certainly taking notice of Stanford's physical domination at Autzen Stadium in the game that decided the North division.

Cal might be able to make hay on special teams, while Dykes admitted his choice of defensive coordinator will be the "biggest, most important hire that I make."

But offense is his trademark, which means being great in a conference well versed in firepower.

That is the biggest issue with Dykes' hire, though a solid selection mitigated by the absence of any slam-dunk hire anywhere in the country. There was no obvious choice on par with Urban Meyer to Ohio State last year, short of dragging Chris Petersen away from Boise State.

Dykes set the goal as reaching the Rose Bowl, which, means winning the conference. That means going through Oregon and Stanford, which are set in their philosophy, along with USC and UCLA from the South every season, overflowing with the most talented players from the loaded Los Angeles recruiting base.

Can he out-scheme a conference on the come, loaded with coaching talent and flush with new television money, to establish those two dominant facets? Can his evolved spread overpower the Pac-12 after an earlier version nearly took Arizona to Pasadena for the first time ever?

Jeff Tedford's pinnacle season in 2004 was defined by a commitment to the basics, as the nation's No. 2 run defense and No. 6 run offense nearly took Cal to the promised land.

If Dykes is going to go one step further, it will take that "commitment to excellence," as he said, ironically invoking a phrase that has been reduced to a running joke in the Bay Area.

Whether it manifests will answer whether the hiring of Dykes is a successful one.

Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.

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