All eyes figure to be on the quarterback position Saturday as California visits North Carolina in the season opener for both teams. Sophomore Ross Bowers is set to make his first collegiate start for the Golden Bears while Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora is still deciding between LSU transfer Brandon Harris, Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott.
The game marks the head-coaching debut of defensive guru Justin Wilcox, who replaced Sonny Dykes after Cal went 5-7 last season and ranked 125th nationally in total defense. The Bears lost quarterback Davis Webb and wide receiver Chad Hansen to the NFL but are bullish on Bowers, who beat out junior Chase Forrest and true freshman Chase Garbers for the starting job. “Ross can throw the football — he spins it really well,” Wilcox told reporters. “He’s an athletic guy (who) can make some things happen when it’s not perfect. He kind of has that mentality about him. He can throw from different arm angles, get out of trouble and make a play on the run.” Bowers will throw his first collegiate pass against a North Carolina team that was picked to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal Division and enters the season with questions at several key positions, including quarterback, running back and the offensive line.
TV: 12:20 p.m. ET, ACC Network. LINE: North Carolina -11
ABOUT CAL (2016: 5-7): After relying heavily on quarterbacks Jared Goff and Webb in recent years, the Bears are promising a more-balanced attack led by senior running backs Vic Enwere and Tre Watson, who combined for 1,045 rushing yards last season. There are question marks on the inexperienced offensive line, but the Bears have a pair of dynamic wide receivers in Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall, who return after combining for 10 touchdowns last year. The Bears should be much improved on defense, where starting linebackers Raymond Davison III and Devante Downs anchor a veteran group eager to form a new identity.
ABOUT NORTH CAROLINA (2016: 8-5): While the Tar Heels have plenty of uncertainty on offense, the defense boasts one of the nation’s top cornerbacks in M.J. Stewart, who led the team with 11 pass breakups and had 59 tackles last season as a junior. Whoever gets the nod at quarterback will be working behind a makeshift offensive line after guards Tommy Hatton and Jared Cohen both left the team during fall camp. Fedora has several openings at wide receiver but was encouraged by the play of junior Devin Perry during camp.
1. Cal is 10-3 in season openers since 2004, including a 51-31 victory over Hawaii last year.
2. North Carolina hasn’t opened the season with a win over a Power 5 program since 1997 against Indiana.
3. Cal’s last victory in the Eastern Time Zone came during the 2002 season when the Bears won 46-22 at Michigan State.
PREDICTION: North Carolina 31, Cal 24