Like any good Cal fan, I have opinions about Sonny Dykes. Odds are you do too, because you’re the kind of person who reads about Cal football on the internet. Because you’ve watched three years of the same sometimes thrilling, sometimes infuriating Sonny Dykes-coached football that I have, and because we’ve hit the bottom of the offseason topic barrel, we should probably talk about those opinions now.
But before we do opinions, let’s do numbers. In three seasons, Dykes has posted a 14–23 record, including a 7–20 line against conference opponents. His teams are 0–9 against Stanford, UCLA, and USC, as well as 0–8 against ranked teams. (Side note: doesn’t it feel like we’ve played way more than eight ranked teams in the last three years?) And while I could cherrypick unflattering defensive statistics all day, I don’t think we need a specific number to know how bad that situation has been.
At the same time, the numbers have started trending in the right direction. Last year’s team went 8–5, a three-win improvement over 2014. Along the way they won a bowl game and posted a conference-best 997 APR score. Four Golden Bears were selected in the 2016 NFL draft, including a number-one pick (which is a decidedly good number, in this instance). Recruiting rankings have improved, climbing to a top-25 class ranking for 2016 thanks to the late addition of Demetris Robertson.
Those numbers (along with my impressions of Dykes from meeting him at Pac-12 Media Day), paint a picture of coach who’s been doing things the right way off the field, but who’s having some trouble translating those results into wins. And I’ll get back to those pesky wins in a moment, but I do want to say this up front: when you hear Dykes talk about his commitment to his players, the value he puts on their growth and their academic success, and the investment he’s made in this program, it’s hard to be too upset about the W/L record.
Yes, “doing things the right way” is cold comfort when the wins aren’t coming. Tough academic standards make it harder to recruit. Time spent in the classroom is time not spent on the field. But so it goes.
The concept of mitigating circumstances is now more than familiar to Cal fans. Jeff Tedford left the metaphorical cupboard bare and Sonny had to restock it with players who fit Cal’s demanding academic requirements. That process would be complicated by significant attrition, freak injuries, and many other “only at Cal” situations outside of Dykes’s control. For those reasons, I’m prepared to give Coach Dykes plenty of leeway when it comes to on-field results.
Oh yes, I want Coach Dykes to start winning more football games. And I fully expect that to start happening in year four because Dykes now has a fully loaded roster of “his guys”. That excuse is no more. Griffin Piatt and Damariay Drew are tough, tough guys to lose, but that’s the kind of thing a Power Five team should be able to withstand. Dykes set high expectations when he said this might be his favorite team in 20 years of coaching, so my patience will start to wear thin if things take a step backwards.
And though consistently losing to rivals can make things seem uglier than they are, the team’s on-field performance deserves praise. I enjoyed watching Cal football last season in a way I hadn’t since the pre-decline Tedford years. The Bears felt like a team that could hang tight with nearly any opponent. They won more games than they lost, and showed fairly consistent improvement doing it. More than that, they (well, the offense at least) were genuinely fun to watch. They were dynamic, they could score quickly, and they weren’t afraid to break out trick plays.
Oh, the trick plays! The moment that, for me, characterizes the Sonny Dykes era was the fake field goal against Northwestern in 2013. It was a bold (though possibly misguided) call in a game we should have won, but didn’t. Doesn’t that sound like a Sonny Dykes team? Exciting, confusing, and coming up just short?
I’m still recovering from the lukewarm milk bath that was Jeff Tedford’s draw-play fun time, which is why Vincenzo D’Amato throwing for that touchdown meant so much to me. It meant that Cal football was going to be fun again (at least in the long term, since not much about that 2013 season was very much fun).
Dykes’ game management is certainly not above reproach. It’s been roughly 100,000 years since last season ended, so my memory may be a bit hazy, but I recall having a qualm or two. Something about ineffective screen passes and boneheaded pooch-punting schemes. Oh, and there was definitely something about going three-incomplete-passes-and-out when the defense could have used a moment’s rest. Feel free to support/contradict those memories in the comments.
Of course it’s hard to know where to pin the blame for some of those complaints. Was Mark Tommerdahl whispering his crazy ideas into Sonny’s earpiece or does Sonny have something against conventional special teams play? We may never know. But Cal seems to like living on the thinnest of margins, so every mistake counts extra.
So with all of that said, it’s time to look forward into year four of the Sonny Dykes experiment. This is uncharted territory for Dykes, who spent three years as the head coach of Louisiana Tech before Sandy Barbour brought him to Berkeley.
It’s almost unmentionably obvious to say the goal is improvement, but how do you measure that when so much of last year’s team is gone? How do you set a win target when Cal has one of the hardest schedules in the nation?
Here’s how I’ll be measuring success this season: I want the Bears, for the first time since UCLA in 2012 (unless it’s Stanford in 2009), to beat a team they shouldn’t. It could be a California school or it could be Washington State, but I want Cal to pull off a bona fide upset.
Winning “winnable” games is fine, but to me the sign of a good team is one that can come out and surprise the big boys. Maybe that’s not the most logical philosophy, but it’s a fun one. And it’s the one thing Sonny hasn’t shown me he can do yet. He’s got his favorite team in 20 years, so how about it?