Black Swans of Cal Football

Posted by: Tony on Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

(As the offseason moves along–four more months to go, WOOOOO!—I’m going to give smarter Cal fans their chance to voice out your opinions. If you want to become a regular contributor or a guest poster, just check this post out for details on what to do.

Today I’m handing it to Tony, a longtime commenter on this site. Enjoy what he has to say about the Bears.)


Offseason Epistemology

By now, we’re all painfully well-versed in the big questions facing the 2008 Golden Bears. Since you know them by heart, I’ll just list a few in shorthand: QB? WR? RB? 3-4? These are the known unknowns and, as obsessive fans, it’s our duty to speculate about them despite the fact that the information available to us sucks. For example, if I hear Brock Mansion lit up our own secondary in a scrimmage am I supposed to get happy, sad, or drunk?

Receiving less attention are the unknown unknowns. I’m currently reading “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb; a book that ostensibly has nothing to do with college football. Taleb’s basic thesis is that although unforeseeable events have a disproportionate impact on history, our predictive models tend to ignore the possibility of such events.

In football terms, this means that chances are some unfathomable occurrence will have a bigger impact on 2008 than, say, whether Kevin Riley is under center against MSU, or whether Best is still wearing a red jersey in Fall camp. (For God’s sake Jahvid, TAKE OFF THAT RUDDY GARMENT!). But because we can’t imagine what the Black Swans will be, we act as if they don’t matter and focus on the color of Jahvid’s jersey instead.

To see what I mean, let’s look back at Cal’s last several seasons and reflect on how what really made the difference were unforeseeable and highly improbable events:

lost Boller, Igber and pretty much the entire defense. But what proved consequential was the unforeseen emergence of massive playmakers like Rodgers and McArthur.

Who could imagine that Cal could rise to national prominence based on a loss to U$C, then tank in the Holiday Bowl because the team was disappointed by a BCS snub?

Cal started the season with two strong candidates to replace Rodgers, but then Longshore went down in the first game, and Ayoob proved to be a horrendous match for Tedford’s system. Let me know if you ever imagined that a walk-on QB would end up leading us to wins in the Big Game and the Las Vegas Bowl.

After “atmosphere” obliterated the Bears’ game plan at Tennessee, Longshore emerged as Tedford’s next great mentee. Unfortunately a phantom pass interference call at Arizona kept Cal out of the Rose Bowl once again.No, blown calls aren’t really “unforeseeable” in the Pac-10. But who knows which way they’ll go?

A sprained ankle proved to be the difference between “can beat anyone” to “can’t beat Stanfurd.”

So what will be 2008’s Black Swans? Obviously we can’t know (but feel free to speculate). We just need to keep in mind that there will be Black Swan’s in 2008 – probably both good and bad. Personally, I take some comfort in that. With the mainstream outlook for our Bears worse than it’s been in years, its good to know there are unknown factors out there that will intervene one way or another.

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