After a 5-0 start, the season is potentially on the brink of unraveling for Cal.
I feel like I've been here before.
The California Golden Bears know that this offseason could dictate the near future of the program. With Sonny Dykes about to enter year four of his contract, an extension of some sort will probably have to come if Cal doesn't want to make him look like a lame duck going into the 2016 season.
Athletic director Mike Williams has been pleased so far, but has not committed to an extension of any sort. With Cal now in danger of a midseason tumble, the questions will only start becoming more prevalent.
Let's take a look at what has been established through nearly three years of Sonny at Cal.
What is good
For those who are big fans of academics, it's looking great! Cal should have very good academic scores and graduation rates and the Bears should continue their upward climb up the APR and GSR. There has been course correction, Cal has recruited well to find players that fit the profile of the school, and players are going to class and generally enjoying the experience more than they did a few years ago.
There will be no external pressure from the Regents to get rid of Dykes for academic issues anytime soon the way there was for Jeff Tedford in his final year at Cal. So people expecting Dykes to be cut loose after this season, get a grip. It won't happen. Cal is not bad enough to lose seven in a row. The only thing that could kill him in 2015 is academic fall-out.
The question about how Sonny feels about the incoming academic restrictions on recruiting is ambiguous and an issue of concern for the future. But he's doing his best at the moment.
Sonny has done his best to bridge the gap that once existed between the players and the school. Tedford was good at many things at Cal, but he was a football mind first and foremost and cared only about those three and a half hours on Saturday. Dykes understood the little things to make people feel part of a community, and has embraced many traditions that are commonplace at every other program in college football.
The Cal players fly the California flag. They learn the fight song. They sing the Bear Territory chant. They spend time with the Cal band after the game. These little things matter in building up love within the community.
Adaptability, particularly with defense
It's been said a lot, and never enough: Dykes inherited an impossible situation that Cal allowed to fester for too long, had to endure an awful first season to jettison most of the baggage, and has had to take on a rebuilding project that I'm fairly certain he didn't know he was signing up for.
The fact that Cal still has a chance to win eight to nine games this season two years off of the horrors of 2013 is truly astonishing. He recognized Andy Buh was a failure after one year, so he bit the bullet and got a legit defensive coordinator in Art Kaufman. He saw how bad the pass defense was last season; he hired an additional cornerbacks coach to assist, and now Darius Allensworth and Darius White are two of the best coverage men in the conference.
Dykes has endured a lot, and he has made the most of what he could with limited resources.
What is uncertain
The Jared Goff effect
In many ways, Jared Goff falling into Sonny's lap has been his shield, because having a great NFL talent at quarterback can muddle the criticism. Is Cal performing well because they have Goff, or because the coaching staff has installed a system that has allowed him to succeed? Is Goff making things happen that wouldn't happen with regular talent, or is Dykes (and Tony Franklin) getting the most out of him?
The million dollar question: Replace Jared Goff with a regular college quarterback, or one of the incoming Dykes recruits that will probably not be quite as good talent-wise. Would they still perform alright? Or would they tank? We're probably getting the answer to that question a year from now.
Technically, recruiting is getting better: Cal had a very solid 2015 class after a 5-7 season, and the 2016 class projects to be top 40 as well. That is Utah/ASU level, and both of those teams are regularly competing in the upper echelon in the Pac-12, and often have proven they can beat the USCs and UCLAs and Stanfords of the world.
But are they getting enough of the right players to fill critical needs? Cal had a nice haul of safeties last season, and Evan Rambo and Trey Turner have contributed a little bit, but they are still pretty low on the depth chart. On the defensive line, DeVante Wilson has made an impact, Cameron Saffle is seeing early time and figures to be instant impact on the line. And the big question is offensive linemen, where the Bears are clearly underachieving in all phases. Semisi Uluave sounds like he will be a force, and young'ins like Kamryn Bennett and Patrick Mekari are also making noise. Cal has also gained valuable transfers in Trevor Davis and James Looney.
This is the least of the concerns though. Regardless of the coach, Cal has generally recruited well aside from the worst years. That is the one nice thing about selling academics better; with the name of Berkeley, the school recruits itself. The big question is if Sonny's recruits will start panning out in time for the Bears to start running the type of offense he wants to run, perhaps making a jump like the one Mike Leach is finally making with Washington State in year 4.
The Tony Franklin System
Speaking of that system, in year 3 the verdict is still out. At this point the players should be executing at a high level in this offense. The team is filled with veterans at the skill positions. They should have some outstanding performances, right?
Yet, aside from Texas, their performances vary from average to disappointing. All of the wide receivers (from Kenny Lawler to Bryce Treggs to even Stephen Anderson) are dropping more footballs. The running backs can't step up to replace an ineffective Daniel Lasco for more than a few carries here and there. And the offensive line is not doing any of these guys favors. The vertical set pass protection has broken down on too many occasions, and that can undo any good offense.
Franklin and Dykes took on extra responsibilities after losing Pierre Ingram and went for a cornerbacks coach rather than a running backs coach, and it's up for debate if it was the right move or not. But the Cal offense is moving backwards this season, dropping from 40 or so points to mid-30s to 24 against Utah to 16 against UCLA (the last touchdown was in meaningless time), and advanced stats back up the drop. With Cal likely breaking in a new quarterback and wide receivers next season, this is a worrisome trend.
And the question of whether this system works at the Power 5 level remains enigmatic at best. Against quality talent and defensive scheming, the Bears offense has sputtered. The bad news is that USC and Stanford are quality; the good news is that the Oregons are not (jury's still out on ASU). But until Cal can beat a rival, the questions will persist if this system can produce Pac-12 titles.
What is bad
Slow starts, slow finishes
Despite having potentially the best quarterback in college football, the Cal offense has lumbered out to slow starts in almost every FBS game. San Diego State was drawing with them for most of the first half. A young and inconsistent Texas squad leapt out to a 24-14 lead before the Bears righted the ship. Washington State had a 21-7 lead at one point. Utah forced another turnover as I was writing this piece. And it all culminated in the abominable UCLA performance.
And when Cal has taken leads against Power 5 teams, they have not made 4th quarters comfortable. The Bears held a 21 point 4th quarter lead in Texas, and they proceeded to blow nearly all of it if not for a missed (blocked) extra point. Cal has yet to score a meaningful 4th quarter touchdown in Pac-12 play despite their defense handing them numerous opportunities, leaving the Washingtons opportunities to win late.
This trend extends to last year. In two of Cal's Pac-12 victories, they were sluggish against Colorado and Washington State by double digits before rallying to win late. They built a 24 point lead against Northwestern only to see it nearly all evaporate. A 27-10 lead against Oregon State disappeared in 15 minutes before the Bears bit back. And don't even get me started on Arizona.
It would be nice to enjoy a very decisive victory against a Power 5 team. Instead it's just a new poker table, week after week.
Beating good teams
The big issue with Sonny is that he never really beat many good teams at Louisiana Tech, and the trend has continued at Cal. Dykes is 11-20 since coming to Cal, with the record against FBS opponents dropping him to 8-20, or .286. His Pac-12 record is currently 5-17, with only one victory against a likely potential winning teams in there (5-2 Washington State, who Cal matches up well with). 3-4 Texas and 3-4 Washington definitely have shown their potential, but it remains to be seen if they'll finish above .500.
By contrast, one of our favorites, Tom Holmoe, went 16-39 (played no FCS teams), which puts him around .291. (He started 11-17 in his first 28 FBS games).
Most damning of all is his record against the major California rivals. Dykes is now 0-7 against UCLA, USC and Stanford, with only one of those games relatively close, and the Bears are not expected to beat either the Trojans and the Trees. Add in Oregon and it's 0-9 with an average margin of defeat of three touchdowns. The Franklin-style offense has ground into the dirt against the three teams Cal wants to beat the most every year, and the UCLA game (with half of the backups playing due to injury concerns) was extremely discouraging.
If that trend were to hold up (although admittedly Oregon is much more beatable than usual), that would probably leave Dykes with around a 7-5 record and another bagel against the rivals, which is the equivalent of Tedford's 2011 year that I barely remember. Do you really want Sonny's best season at Cal (with a talent like Goff) through three years to be about as good as Tedford's third worst?
If Dykes can get a major win in the final five games, these questions resolve themselves. But until then...
Cal started 2014 4-1, only to tumble to a disappointing 1-6 finish (Even in the 1-11 season, Sonny's teams showed spunk early against Ohio State and Northwestern before utterly falling apart down the stretch, although catastrophic injury luck played a huge role).
This year, Cal started the season 5-0, but admittedly many of us felt a 4-1 start was likely based on the schedule. In the decisive games, they blew a great chance in Utah, then fell flat on their face after nearly two weeks to prepare against a UCLA team on the ropes. Now they get USC at home and Oregon on the road. 5-0 can become 5-4 really quickly, and our generation could soon have the last generation's version of 2007, or the next-to-last generation's version of 1996...
A lot is on the line this week when Cal plays a confident USC team that vanquished Utah. Another decisive loss could undo all the great work Sonny has done this offseason and in the first five weeks of the season, because suddenly every game aside from Oregon State becomes eminently losable.
The Bears are not good enough to count on wins; they haven't played well enough in any game to feel that way. Whether it's coaching, talent, scheme, execution, or anything in between, Sonny knows how high the stakes are if he wants to be the Cal coach long-term. He cannot afford many more nights like Thursday. He won't have Goff for much longer, and the light will only be shining on him, Franklin, Kaufman and the coaching staff to deliver the big wins.
The theme of modern Cal football has been to get your hopes up in September, only to see them get decimated in October. It's up to Dykes to reverse this trend, not just for Cal's sake, but his own.