When Sonny Dykes installed the Bear Raid, it felt like this neat, shiny present that would bring back excitement and fans into Memorial Stadium. Momentum for the program was on a steady decline through the late Tedford era. Dykes would put points on the board and give Cal back on the offense they needed to turn fans back on to the interest. The Bears would start scoring and bringing back the winning tradition to Memorial.
Turns out it did neither of those things. Ticket sales declined the moment Jared Goff left campus. And Cal did not start winning again—the Bears only won 10 games in the Pac-12 in four seasons under Dykes. Cal’s offense scored points only to see the defense turn around and hiccup the advantages away. The Bears were a reality sideshow: Flashy, shiny, exciting, but ultimately irrelevant in the big picture aside from a brief burst of Goffense.
So Cal has returned to conventional norms. Cal’s 24–17 victory over North Carolina was traditional football at its least compelling—a very dominant win hampered by a rather futile comeback. UNC made it annoying close but was never sinking the win probability curve at any major turn—the Bears were at 95%+ from the middle of the second quarter onward.
So we need to learn to not expect a few things this season.
Don’t expect razzle and dazzle. All of Cal’s skill talent from the Bear Raid era is gone—jettisoned or transferred. Cal played one running back almost the entire game and as much as we love Patrick Laird, any modern offense that employs one RB all game is going to be quick-sanding by end-game.
Don’t expect breakaway scores. The potential for a 50-yard touchdown existed in the times of the Bear Raid, but those days are gone. Now, Cal just has to hope a few defenders trip on themselves, because the breakaway acceleration just doesn’t exist yet.
On the other hand, there could be some bad Pac-12 defenses ahead, so maybe that is in play...
Don’t expect to be happy by quarterback play. For there to be no true starter by opening day is one thing. To see all three play in the same game? To see two on the same drive almost the entire game? Just be prepared for a wild ride of disappointment until a starter is named. I’m not sure Saturday’s performances brought Beau Baldwin any closer to an actual decision.
Don’t expect any decisive wins. The talent is not there to put any team into the dirt early. Cal barely scrapped their way past Weber State and 1–11 Oregon State last season. I cannot project North Carolina’s future, but I’m going to guess that this is not their last loss on the schedule.
Don’t expect a run to the crown. Quarterback battles usually aren’t still ongoing this late. The last Frankenstein season at quarterback for the Bears was 2008—and it kept the last great Cal team from competing for the conference crown. The coaching staff clearly knows that they will have to piece their way through this season with a quarterback trio that has yet to separate itself from each other.
Don’t expect the defense to be this structured every week. And this is even if Cameron Goode returns. Cal might be one of the better-coached defensive teams in the conference, but they are at this point heavily reliant on that aspect of their team to slog out wins. That much offensive flux usually lends itself to defensive lapses (see last year’s Colorado game, or the Oregon whipping). There will be times when the Bears get caught flat-footed.
Don’t expect 2018 to be that much different from 2017. Justin Wilcox put a Cal team that had no business sniffing contention within a few plays of being 8–4 last year. Based on what we saw on Saturday, this might be the same scenario that presents itself this year. Talent has its limits, but coaching makes the most of the situation. Floor of four wins, ceiling of eight. Opportunities will be there for the Bears to squeak out winnable games against more talented competition.
Coaching will put Cal in position to take advantage of those situations. The Bears have to be prepared to seize it.
Welcome back, conventional Cal football. Are we ready to embrace it?