2021 Cal Football Season Review Wrap: What will it take for the Bears to break through?
And how much patience do Cal's administration and big donors have waiting for that breakthrough?
Justin Wilcox has now been Cal’s head coach for 5 years. His position at Cal is remarkably stable. He has twice refused the overtures of his much more successful, much richer, alma mater. He received a contract extension following the 2018 season, an is rumored to be on the brink of another extension. Cal’s donors have expressed their faith in his leadership by helping to fund improvements to recruiting, staff retention, and player experience.
Simultaneously, Justin Wilcox has finished every regular season within a game of .500, supports a cumulative record of 26-28, and still has not recorded a winning record in Pac-12 play.
For anybody outside of Berkeley - or, at least, outside of the Pac-12 - those two paragraphs would seem to be quite contradictory. In the zero sum game of college football, power conference coaches who average 6-6 seasons each year don’t generally get the kind of institutional backing that Justin Wilcox is receiving.
For those familiar with Cal’s recent history, it’s probably pretty explicable and unsurprising. To start with, some of the institutional support Wilcox is starting to receive is the kind of thing that would be considered standard operating procedures for most P5 schools. But Cal’s recent history, budgeting reality, and increasingly academic focus means that this kind of support must be earned . . . but not necessarily via wins and losses.
No, Justin Wilcox appears to tick every single box a Cal coach can for administrators and big money donors tick outside of that most important box. He’s largely drama free and doesn’t spend time complaining about the kind of Berkeley-specific logistical hurdles that certain other Cal coaches have complained about. He’s connected to the glory days of Jeff Tedford. He’s displayed a level of loyalty to Cal that, quite frankly, Cal hasn’t earned. He ended the Stanford and USC losing streaks, and beat them both again for good measure.
Does that mean that he deserves the level of institutional support he’s received? That’s a harder question to answer, and would require us fully assess 1) what you would expect an average coach to have achieved over the same time span, under the same circumstances and 2) what he is likely to achieve in the near future.
That first topic is too big and too subjective for me to dare tackle right now. The 2nd topic is why we’re here:
Is Justin Wilcox likely to break through with an 8-4 or better regular season and a better-than-.500 Pac-12 season next year?
It is of course far too early to project a 2022 roster; Cal is still actively scouring the transfer portal for additions, and there’s plenty of time for additions or subtractions.
With that caveat in mind, I have a hard time imagining that there will be enough roster change to lead me to predict anything apart from the usual 6-6, +/- a game.
To start, if I’m going to predict that a coach is going to break a 5 year pattern of on-field performance, I’m going to need to see something markedly different entering the season. Maybe a level of recruiting or experience that hasn’t been the case in prior seasons. Maybe a high level returner at a number of key positions (most of all quarterback). Maybe a couple of new hires on the staff with strong track records of on-field success.
For the most part, I don’t see Cal 2022 looking much different from Cal 2021, or really Cal in any prior Wilcox season. As detailed in reviews of the offense and defense, Cal is simply losing too many key contributors on both sides of the ball to imagine a major step forward for either unit. Chase Garbers was too critical to Cal’s offensive production, to say nothing of the WR trio of Remigio/Crawford/Clark. Cal’s defensive strength was based on the secondary backbone of Hicks/Scott/Drayden, and while I generally have faith in Cal’s defensive coaches to fill the gaps, those aren’t players you can easily replace all at once.
In short, I’m expecting another season of roughly .500 football.
There are aspects of the roster that will allow the eternal optimist in you to dream. Maybe Brett Johnson and Xavier Carlton and the rest of Cal’s young core of defensive linemen coalesce into the disruptive, game-breaking defensive line that Justin Wilcox’s defenses have never had. Maybe the Cal offense doesn’t take a step back next year because all of the younger players have fully absorbed the Musgrave offense and are ready to hit the ground running. Maybe this is the year where Cal wins every close game. Maybe the Pac-12 continues to be a chaotic mess of a conference, and the door stays ajar for a team like Cal.
Maybe, maybe maybe. There have been maybes every year, and the end result has still been ~.500 football.
The hope is that more administrative and donor support will allow Justin Wilcox to puncture that equilibrium. With so many major contributors departing the program, I’d peg 2022 as perhaps a mild rebuilding year, which sets up a different question: how long will Cal’s administration and donors maintain that support for .500 football?