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Can Cal end a disappointing decade on a high note?

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The California Golden Bears have not really mattered in the college football landscape this decade. It’s up to Justin Wilcox to change that.

NCAA Football: Southern California at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not going to miss the 2010s.

When I started at Cal in 2004, my 18-year old anchoring took me to the appropriate place: “Oh, this is Cal, we’re going to be competing for the Rose Bowl every season, this is how it’s going to be going forward.” This coming from the kid who didn’t even know UC Berkeley had a major college football team until someone at orientation started talking about a guy named Aaron Rodgers.

A decade later, the Cal that every Bear fan who knew the name “Justin Vedder” warned me of was out and in full force. Cal has spent most of the 10s being particularly irrelevant to the college football landscape.

Aside from a brief blip in 2015 where Cal got to 5-0 and got the College Gameday treatment, the Bears haven’t really been thought of by anyone outside of the Bay Area. The declining Jeff Tedford followed by the overwhelmed Sonny Dykes accumulated to a lost decade for Cal. A roster laden with legitimate NFL talent was wasted under the first regime; the resulting clearout wasted Cal’s first number one draft pick in 40 years.

Under Justin Wilcox, there are signs that the dog days might be coming to an end. A second winning season in a row (something Cal hasn’t done since 2009) would be a promising turn into the 2020s, as Cal finally seems to have things they lacked for much of the decade—good coaching and a strong understanding of the type of athlete that can thrive and be a high-achiever. There’s a lot to like, and with Wilcox’s extension now baked in, he can build the program he wants for the next few seasons without too much outside interference.

Still, college football is fickle. 2019 will be a crucial inflection point. With the majority of the coaching staff back for a third season, changes are likely on the horizon next year as the roster begins turning over to Wilcox’s recruits and assistants begin pondering heir next moves. While seven wins and a bowl game would be another solid success, I imagine Wilcox has loftier goals to set the tone for a new Cal in a new decade. He has a team that is capable, but will they be ready to leap back into the thick of the Pac-12 race?

Before we look forward, let’s go back and review the numbers and how Cal can influence them in 2019.

Seven. Cal hasn’t surpassed seven wins in any regular season this decade. Cal had Jared Goff at quarterback and couldn’t go better than 7–5, needing to throw out all the stops just to get past Arizona State on Senior Day.

Can Cal hit the elusive eight in 2019? Cal’s non-conference schedule isn’t easy. UC Davis is a rising FCS program, North Texas has ten-win potential in Conference USA, and even as down as Ole Miss is, Cal has never played well on Southern road trips. Three wins are almost a necessity here, because the Pac-12 gauntlet gets pretty tough away from Memorial.

Six. Cal has had six different starting quarterbacks on opening day in ten seasons. That’s a lot of quarterback turnover in one decade—by contrast, Stanford has had four (Andrew Luck, Kevin Hogan, Keller Chryst, KJ Costello), with all but one playing multiple seasons.

Jared Goff took up three of those years (great, except for the fact that two of those seasons were wasted due to roster turnover/historically bad defenses). Zach Maynard took up another two (less great, as Cal took talented rosters and turned out a football team on the downslide). Everyone else (senior Kevin Riley—ok, a bit unfair—transfer Davis Webb, Ross Bowers, Chase Garbers this season) got their one season in, and had their fair share of trouble.

Both Riley and Bowers got hurt in the midst of their season, ending their Cal careers in pretty ignominious fashion. Webb’s defense couldn’t stop anyone. Only one of those seasons led to a bowl game, and that was the year Garbers was often benched for the haphazard Brandon McIlwain, and then McIlwain proved to be, uh, issue-filled. None of those two-QB games went all that well.

Garbers enters year two, supposedly with a full-recovered shoulder that was barely functional last season.

Five. Five wins is our median. Cal has held a 5-7 record four times this decade, including three of the last five seasons. 5–7 is the worst. You can’t sell anyone (recruits, donors, fans) on 5–7. You don’t get an extra month of practice. You get very few tangible recruiting benefits from the extra time provided to assistants. You lose assistants due to the need to preserve your own coaching status. 5-7 is a perfect recipe for an unstable football program.

Cal isn’t that far off from a 5-7 fate in 2019 yet again. They will be underdogs in at least five of their six road games, and pretty big underdogs in three of those games. Their home slate is easier, but going 1-2 against ASU, USC, and Wazzu isn’t that far-fetched either. Being involved in low-scoring games will lead to variance, and sometimes it can flip unfavorably.

Four. Four times, Cal has sported a defense or offense that could be considered “worst in Power 5 football”. Cal’s defense went 104th in S&P+ in 2013, 113th in 2014, 107th in 2016, definitely bottom 5 in Power 5 every season. The raw metrics are even worse, but to be fair the Pac-12 was seriously stacked mid-decade and Cal faced all the toughest teams during that period.

Somehow, the 2018 Cal offense was arguably worse than all of those (118th—only Rutgers was worse in Power 5)! But the good news is Cal won seven games in spite of that because the defense was that good.

With a potentially meteoric defense coming back, only marginal offensive improvement is needed. However, Cal’s offense isn’t really brim-filled with talent this season—they lost more players than they gained. There’s a real danger of more offensive trouble.

Three. Cal has had three winning seasons and made three bowl games in the 2010s, losing two. A one-in-three chance of making a bowl game as a college football program is some serious yikes, particularly since there are enough bowls to fill half of the universities in FBS.

Undoubtedly, all of this can be resolved if Cal can get that elusive last Pac-12 bid and earn a return trip to the Cheez-it Bowl and claim what is rightfully theirs. Forget Pasadena. Cheez-its are our birthright.

Two. Cal beat two teams that finished in the top-25 in the last decade, and that was last season against Washington. Late-stage Jeff Tedford was 0-10 from 2010-12 (although there were some close calls in there). Sonny Dykes went 1-16 and had practically zero chance of winning 90% of those games, with the one win being one of the most confusing results ever: A historically bad Cal defense doing this to Utah in 2016.

Cal proceeded to lose to last-place Oregon State the following week. All hail the Sonny Dykes era.

Wilcox is 1-4, but three of the four losses (2017 USC and Stanford, 2018 Washington State) were all winnable games going into the 4th quarter. There are signs of a team that can punch with the best of them. All five Pac-12 top-25 teams (Oregon, Utah, the Washingtons, Stanford) are all on the slate, four on the road. Going 2-3 against this gauntlet would be another huge step forward. Cal needs to prove they can beat the best. The program can only take so many “great in a losing effort” games.

One. The number of times Cal has beaten USC since 2004. Oh wait, this is a good memory. All hail the Coliseum.

Still, 1 win in nine years still makes the record against the team most Cal fans generally want to beat 1-8. As fun as the individual moment is, beating a 5-7 USC team the highlight of our decade generally shows how rough things have been.

The simple recipe here to make is for Cal to beat this mess of a Trojan team this year and double that total. Maybe Clay Helton will still be around. That’d be helpful.

Zero. The number of times Cal has beaten Arizona this decade. You might say, “Well Mr. Avinash, we only played Arizona five times this decade, that’s not as bad.” But somehow this is in some ways the legacy of our listless decade.

Four of those five losses happened in those 5-7 seasons, and Cal could have won all of them, and suddenly this disappointing decade becomes distinctly average. Cal led for 116 of 120 minutes in two of those games, including once when the clock was totally out. It’s an inexplicable coin flip sequence that ends with five Sean Millers handing unmarked bills to Book Richardson.

Cal cannot resolve their Wildcat woes for another two years. Place my unresolved anger into a box.

Zero. The number of times Cal has posted a winning record in the Pac-12 this decade. Even in the three seasons Cal made their bowl game, the Bears went 4–5, 4–5, 4–5. Cal has managed two wins against Washington, one win against Oregon, the one win against USC—and all four wins could easily have gone the other way. That’s one-sidedness taken to an extreme.

Washington and Oregon aren’t going to be easy to win—Wilcox has struggled particularly against the Ducks—but opportunities will be available for Cal to get a winning Pac-12 record. The Bears were a few bounces of the ball from getting their last season!

Zero. The number of times Cal has beaten Stanford this decade.

This is how Cal’s decade against Stanford started.

This is the longest losing streak in Big Game history. The early Stanford BCS bowl teams blasted Cal into submission and then Dykes proved to be entirely hapless for the middle of the decade.

Wilcox has come close the last two seasons, but ultimately the Cal offense literally threw away the opportunity. Is this the season to finally close the deal?

While there’s hope for Cal to turn the corner under the current coaching staff, Cal isn’t just fighting the opponents ahead of them. The Golden Bears haven’t been good in a way that matters in a long time. With a talented defense and a solid coaching staff, this feels like a year to take the next leap.

Otherwise, take the 2010s and shoot them into space. New decade please!