5-7, 3-6 in Conference
Key Wins: Texas, Utah, Oregon, UCLA
Key Losses: San Diego State
In January, I wrote a piece about Cal firing Sonny Dykes with terrible timing. It came out that Dykes was inquiring about other head coaching and coordinating jobs over the last year. Cal’s athletic department decided they would help his job search by removing the time burden of coaching a Power 5 program. Firing your coach mere weeks before Signing Day is a risky move; it is difficult to have a highly rated recruiting class. Sure enough, the Golden Bears ranked dead last in the conference for their 2017 class.
From a 35,000 foot view, Cal had another middling season. They went 5-7, missed a bowl, and canned their coach. Looking into the detail, there is certainly some highlights to be salvaged. Texas, Oregon, and UCLA had very low years compared to their past seasons. That should not take away from the fact that Texas, Oregon, and UCLA remain very talented and were able to beat other very talented teams. Cal also mustered a win against Utah, a perennial B+/A- team in the Pac-12. Their offense finished 22nd in points per game and that only stands to continue with new offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin leading the charge.
Coach: Justin Wilcox
In my Sonny Dykes post, I predicted Justin Wilcox might become Cal’s coach due to his tenures at very strong programs including recent success at Wisconsin. I had also noted that it would be a change of pace to bring in a hardnosed defensive coordinator to replace a pass-happy Sonny Dykes. What I did not mention, though, is that coaches often bring in highlight coordinators to take over the opposite side of the ball. In this case, Wilcox went out and nabbed Beau Baldwin from Eastern Washington to coach the offense. Baldwin had a very successful career coaching at EWU and groomed many quarterbacks for his own pass-happy offense.
For Wilcox, the biggest challenge will be reshaping the defense. Fast offenses lend to their own defenses allowing more points per game: the less the offense is on the field, the more the defense is on the field. That is not the issue at Cal. Coming in at a staggering 127th out of 128 in the country in points allowed per game (42 points per game!) has a lot more to do with simply terrible defense than it does the pace of your offense. Cal has not seen the Top 50 for points allowed since 2012. Spoiler alert: it probably won’t happen this year, either.
As I mentioned, the offense was the highlight of the team last year. They had no problem scoring copious amounts of points on their opponents. The Golden Bears did lose their starting QB, Davis Webb, who took 620 of the 621 pass attempts last year. Webb is not the only offensive player leaving. According to Bill Connelly from SBNation, Cal is only returning 38% of their offensive production from last year. Despite that, they are still returning a lot of talented players, regardless of their on-the-field experience. Demetris Robinson, a sophomore, was a 5* talent wide receiver coming out of high school. Tre Watson was the second string running back but split the carries last year almost exactly 50/50.
Where to begin? The defense was nothing short of atrocious last season. Between injuries, a lack of structure, and simply a lack of talent, the Bears defense took up residency at the bottom of nearly every defensive metric. The (maybe) plus side is that many of their players who received playing time last year are returning. Another downside is the shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4. In the NFL, this can be helped by going out to free agency and acquiring the right players for a quick fix. In college, you are handcuffed by the players you recruit. As we recall from my intro blurb, Cal didn’t recruit well this last season.
Projected Record: 3-9
Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Pac-12 has done a good job recently of pushing Power 5 opponents for their out-of-conference schedule. For contenders, this plays in their favor to bolster their strength of schedule. For rebuilders, you miss a game or two that could be easy wins and push you towards a bowl berth. There is no reward for tanking in college football. They start the season off @North Carolina, v. Weber State, v. Ole Miss, v. USC, @ Oregon, @Washington, and v. Washington State. If they come out of that stretch with two wins (Weber State being the gimme game), they should call it a rampant success.