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The least important most important season ever

A 2016 preview blissfully free of stats, roster breakdowns, scheme analysis, or anything resembling objective reasoning

Grambling v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Welcome to the next era of Cal football, and the next phase of the Sonny Dykes reign.

As of right now, just four days and a handful of hours stand between you and another season of Golden Bear football. If you’re lucky, you might be enjoying the season opener in person in Sydney. Most will be watching a night game played in the daytime in the future. The Sonny Dykes era started weird, and it’s going to stay weird, dammit.

Most seasons start with well-defined stakes, expectations, and narratives. That’s certainly been the case at Cal over the last few years. The narrative of the final years of the Tedford era were about desperate attempts to regain past glories, and the stakes. 2013 was about the excitement and possibility of a new coaching staff and a new scheme. 2014 was about simply winning games again. And 2015 was about wringing as many wins as possible out of arguably the greatest quarterback in school history.

2016’s narrative is . . . well, I’m not sure yet. The stakes? That’s not clear. Expectations are middling, even from optimistically biased fans. This isn’t a season that’s expected to include a conference title challenge or a major bowl. It isn’t a season that’s expected to decide the immediate fate of a coaching staff. It isn’t the final season for a generation-defining player. Taking the view from August, is this one of the least important seasons of Cal football?

That’s a weird thing to say as a football fan. We’re hard-wired to feel like every game of every season is a wildly important, era-defining event even when it’s UC Davis on the other side of the field. And I know that whatever I write now, my heart will be thudding in my chest the first time Cal attempts to convert a tough 3rd down or Hawaii gets into the red zone on Friday night. That hard-wiring can never be changed.

No, in isolation the 2016 Cal football season probably won’t be the season you’ll think back on with strong feelings of joy or pain. 2016 likely won’t be a 1991 or 2004 style season. It likely won’t be a 2001 or 2013 either, thankfully.

But nothing happens in isolation. And that’s why 2016 is sneaky important.

If Cal goes to a bowl this season, then the narrative is about growth and stability. Sonny Dykes and the Bears can win games without Jared Goff. Cal will only be losing (depending on the exact outcome of a few camp battles) roughly six starting seniors from a team that is generally quite young. After three years of slowly building back up to bowl eligibility, Cal would immediately start building again, but this time from a vastly, vastly higher starting position. The Sonny Dykes extension would look like an excellent agreement for all parties, and the general outlook for Cal football would be better than any time since 2009.

If Cal falls back significantly, then the narrative switches. Many will argue that Dykes can only win with Jared Goff. Others will complain about a defense that can’t seem to rise towards the middle of the conference. Justified or not, Dykes will probably appear in those hacky off-season lists measuring seat temperature. Many will complain that Cal’s AD gave Dykes a blank check for ongoing yearly contract extensions.

The difference between the happy narrative and the sad narrative might not be much. How much different would the narrative be if that interception against UCLA got overturned two years ago or if USC couldn’t get a first down to kill the clock last year? I’m a broken record talking about how Cal’s fate will be defined by a series of coin-flip games, but it’s the truth. The difference between Sonny Dykes, pillar of program stability and Sonny Dykes, pillar of program mediocrity might come down to a handful of fourth-quarter drives going one way or another.

And since this is college sports, narrative matters. There’s a reason Cal can attract all kinds of quarterbacks and wide receivers but struggles with defensive recruiting. I’ll go to my grave complaining about announcers who use momentum in every other sentence because they’re too dumb/lazy to do actual analysis, but momentum matters in recruiting. Cal recruiting has lagged behind exactly the teams you would expect, but a strong bowl season for this young team, with raised expectations in 2017 could very well go a long way towards closing that gap.

A few paragraphs back, I said that you probably won’t remember 2016 as wildly successful or wildly miserable. But it is possible that you will look back on 2016 the same way you might look back at 2003 or 2010. 2003 was the unexpectedly strong year that presaged some of the best years of modern Cal football. 2010 was the unexpectedly weak year that presaged some of the darkest years of modern Cal football.

Which memory is it gonna be? Hell if I know. But that’s why we care so damned much about this sport, isn’t it?