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Cal Football 2018: Will hope lead to results?

With the first game of the season just three weeks away, where does Cal’s football program stand compared to the last 10 years of on-field results?

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Congratulations, tired traveler! The interminable off-season is nearly over! Welcome to CGB’s 2018 official season preview series. Over the next few weeks we’ll be ramping up our coverage with preview articles covering each position group, as well as analysis of offense, defense, special teams, and the entire schedule.

If you ask a Cal football fan what they hope for at the beginning of each season, the answer is invariably “The Rose Bowl”. If asked by a stranger at a party, this would be my answer. That answer is more out of inertia and laziness—because it’s pithy and ultimately accurate.

Of course, my answer to a fellow Cal fan is inevitably more long-winded. Summarized in one sentence: I want to watch a Cal football team that contends for a Pac-12 title.

If this feels like a lowering of expectations, that’s because it literally is. Cal has not managed to finish with a winning record in the Pac-10/12 in nine years. It has been a decade since the last season in which, if you squint, you could have imagined that Cal kinda sorta was close to the teams truly competing for the conference title. We are 12 years removed from Cal’s last 10-win season, which not-coincidentally was also Cal’s last credible shot at the Pac crown.

I feel like I write something like this at the beginning of every season—a sad catalog of how long it has been since Cal football was if not nationally relevant, then at least regionally relevant. Then comes the segue into a conversation about whether or not this year is the team to end a long streak of bad-to-mediocre football.

The last decade of Cal football has become an exercise in learning to appreciate the joys of individual games and individual players, rather than the collective results from the season. Players like Cameron Jordan and C.J. Anderson and Chad Hansen. Games like UCLA 2012, Washington State 2017, or [USC FILE NOT FOUND].

In my roughly eight years (!) writing for this website, there is one year in which I had hope that Cal could maybe kinda sorta contend at the top of the conference. That season was 2015, when I (probably naively) thought it was reasonably possible that a Jared Goff–led Cal offense bristling with skill position weapons could maybe outscore the rest of the conference.

That didn’t stop me from trying to manufacture hope and to come up with arguments why, if everything broke right, Cal might exceed whatever modest expectations they were given that year. Much of the last eight years has been a balance between being honest and being happy because we don’t do this* to be miserable.

*When I say “this”, I mean both being a Cal football fan and also writing about Cal football for this website.

Justin Wilcox has given me more hope than any single player or coach in the last decade. That hope is both regarding the general trajectory of the program and also the 2018 season. I believe that Cal is best positioned to maybe kinda sorta compete atop the Pac-12 than in any season in the last decade or so.

Admittedly, that’s not saying much. It’s certainly more likely than not that the Bears won’t compete near the top of the conference. Las Vegas sees Cal as a team struggling to become bowl-eligible rather than a team hoping to measure themselves against Washington and Stanford. The pre-season poll has Cal closer to 5th than 3rd in the North standings. When a team spends a decade going 5–7 most years, it’s pretty damn reasonable to predict that they’re going to go 5–7 again.

Which is why—right now—all we have is hope, rather than actual concrete results. Yes, it’s true, 2017 Cal football was very different than 2016 Cal football . . . but both teams still went 5–7. The type of change I’m talking about is the type of change that is reflected in the win/loss column.

Why do I think this year just might be different? Because continuity just might allow for the Bears to build on the foundation they build last year. For the first time in years, Cal will return a high percentage of both contributing coaches and players. The coaching staff is virtually unchanged. Cal is tied for 4th in the country in returning starters. There is no unit on the team that doesn’t have some level of veteran experience—and they will all be entering their second year under the same set of offensive and defensive coaches.

For most of the last decade, Cal has been fighting against the forces of entropy unsuccessfully. The last years of the Tedford era saw a revolving door of coaches and strategy as a waning era threw different ideas at the wall hoping something would stick. The Tedford-to-Dykes transition was as rough as it could have possibly been—and then Dykes spent four years failing to build a defense that could even inch towards averageness. Then, finally, Justin Wilcox manages to transition back to football that includes defense in a transition year that was as smooth as could reasonably have been hoped for.

With the transition year firmly in the rear view mirror—and with a roster full of experienced players who know their roles within the offense and the defense—exactly how far can this team climb? There’s a reason that teams tend to see performance bumps in their second year under a new coach.

I don’t know the answer to that question. My fear is that the level of talent across the roster will put a limit on just how good this team can be. But there is a baseline of coaching and experience throughout the program that allows one to hope—to hope for actual on-the-field results, without feeling like a sucker or a sap.

The 2017 season saw the transition from a fool’s hope to actual hope. Here’s to the 2018 season, when hope transitions to actual results.