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Is there a window for Cal as a 2018 dark horse?

How has the off-season chaos of Pac-12 football impacted your outlook for next year?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Cal at North Carolina
Hey, Cameron Saffle will be playing again next September!
Photo by Brian Utesch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Has this offseason felt weird to you, Cal fans? Doesn’t it feel kinda odd to be going through an almost entirely drama free December and January?

For most of the past 5 years of Cal football, the first few months of the off-season have been filled with head coaching rumors, coordinating rumors, will-he-go-to-the-NFL-draft rumors, and any number of other happenings.

But save for the departure of a position coach for a promotion at UCLA, Cal’s entire coaching staff appears to be coming back next season. No Bears have (or are likely to) declare early for the NFL draft. No significant on-field contributors have transferred out. It’s been a blissfully news free month, and the only downside is that I’m running out of things to talk about.

That has decidedly not been the case for much of the rest of the Pac-12. Five different teams will have different head coaches next season. A sixth (Washington State) nearly had their head coach leave in a situation that has Sonny Dykesish undertones.

Meanwhile, only 5 or 6 of the Pac-12’s 22 all-conference offensive players will be returning (#GoProBryce). Harrison Phillips, Vita Vea, and Hercules Mata’afa are gone as well. The Pac-12 was down in 2017, but the state of rosters and coaches staffs up and down the conference don’t really make me think that the conference will be any better next year.

And there’s Cal, quietly sitting in the corner, not doing anything dumb, getting injured players healthy, thinking about how they only started 4 seniors on the final day of the season against UCLA.

Think about it:

  • Oregon State is a mess.
  • Oregon is on their 3rd head coach in 3 years.
  • Washington State just lost 5 starters on both sides of the ball including a 3.5 year starter at quarterback, all-american lineman, and their best defensive player in a decade.
  • UCLA has lost three players to the draft, including an elite quarterback and the wide receiver that was unguardable against our Bears.
  • True, Arizona has Khalil Tate, but now they’re going through a coaching staff overhaul, they lose three starting offensive linemen, and their defense is still a mess.
  • Stanford is losing the linchpin of an otherwise struggling front 7 and will (crosses fingers) hopefully see 39% of their offensive production declare for the draft today or tomorrow.
  • Colorado wasn’t very good anyway, is losing their workhorse running back and shut down corner, and Cal won’t have to play them at altitude next year

Is this wishcasting? Almost certainly. UCLA is bringing in a head coach that was (is?) elite in this conference already. Oregon has lots of talent on hand and a pretty excellent recruiting class on the way, and Mario Cristobal seems like a baseline competent head coach. Mike Leach has never let losing a quarterback inhibit his offense. Stanford has replaced NFL talent countless times over the last 8 years. We get Khalil Tate in the Arizonas rotation rather than the Herm Edwards experience.

And looming over everything is USC and Washington. USC because although they are losing important players, they are still the most talented team in the conference by any measure. And Washington because they return nine starters on defense and plenty of skill talent on offense . . . in addition to a top 15 recruiting class. Even if Cal were to take a big leap forward in their 2nd season under Wilcox they would have to deal with the behemoth in their division and the monkey that’s been on their back for 14 seasons in a row.

What I’m trying to talk through is a simple question: Is this Cal’s best chance to compete towards the top of the Pac-12 in a decade plus? Cal hasn’t had a winning record in conference play in eight years and haven’t been within one game of the division/conference champ since they won a share of the title in 2006 . . . so it’s easy to say that this is our best chance in a decade since the last decade has been basically devoid of chances.

It’s a question that we’ll all spend the next eight months contemplating. I think the Bears are better poised than ever before, but still have some obvious question marks and gaps that must be addressed to realize that level of improvement.

But for a brief, Jared-Goff-related glimmer, this is as optimistic as most of us have felt in some time. And just having that feeling of possibility and optimism back is fun.

Damn the next eight months are going to go slowly.