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2022 Season Preview Part 1: How badly does Cal need Justin Wilcox to turn the corner?
Or will demographics save Cal athletics regardless of on-field achievement?
Welcome to August! In less than four weeks, college football will be back. Western Kentucky vs. Austen Peay? Yes please! More relevantly, Cal football will be back in less than five weeks. With the return of August, we’re once again kick starting season preview season. Stay tuned for unit previews, predictions, fall camp coverage, and everything else that comes with the return of football season.
College football is a sport built on a foundation of chaos, a reality that drives most college football head coaches, natural control freaks, to paranoia and madness.
Justin Wilcox has defied that chaos as much as anybody can. In four full seasons, his teams have gone between 5-7 and 7-5 every season, playing a style of football based on rugged defense above everything else.
I’m not trying to imply that Wilcox wants to go roughly .500 every year. Rather, his inherent proclivities as a coach, his strengths and weaknesses, have led to remarkably similar seasons regardless of the exact personnel Wilcox had available in any given season.
Cal has finished a game above or below .500 in the regular season every full year since 2014; Cal is very likely to do the same again this season. An optimist might view this stretch of football as stability or consistency. Most fans, I suspect, wonder if and when a breakthrough to something greater might happen.
I have a really hard time seeing a breakthrough this year. The rest of this month will be devoted to deep dives into what this team might do on the field, but I’ll go ahead and give you a free early preview.
The 2022 Bears might have the deepest defense they have ever had in the Wilcox era, with talent at every level and with the kind of disruptive defensive lineman that has largely been absent.
But the 2022 Bears will also field perhaps their least experienced offenses of the Wilcox era, with all kinds of questions at quarterback and offensive line. When you’ve watched a coaching staff struggle to wring average offensive production out of a group of experienced upperclassmen, expecting something different after so much turnover isn’t realistic.
That breakthrough to something more, even a modest breakthrough to 8 or 9 regular season wins, feels at least a year off if not longer. But while Cal remains a stable bet for roughly 6 wins, Cal’s spot in the college football landscape, largely stable for 100 years, is suddenly built on quicksand.
It’s dubious at best to suggest that on-field performance makes a meaningful difference in the conference realignment dance. There’s a reason Rutgers is in the Big-12 and Boise State is in the Mountain West. But it’s also true that some schools from the right locations have elevated themselves with strong performances - teams like Utah, Cincinnati, and UCF have moved up the conference pecking order, and I’d bet they would still be stuck in non-power leagues if their football performance had been weaker.
So does Cal NEED a strong football season? Does it matter? Would it make a difference? If Cal takes a step backwards on the field, are they more likely to go down with their sinking-ship-conference? If Cal manages to earn an unexpected breakthrough, does that make it more likely that the Big-10 comes calling?
I have no clue. It sure wouldn’t hurt.
That’s the backdrop that will act as constant subtext for the 2022 season. Is this the beginning of Cal football’s last hurrah before a fade into college football irrelevance, or a merely transition from one power conference to another? Would another mediocre year fail to convince the B1G that Cal is a brand worth adding? Would an unexpectedly strong season do enough to revive the fan base and remind the college football world that California’s flagship school can be a major player?
This year might be the most important season of Cal football ever . . . or maybe the Bears could go 2-10 and the B1G would still come calling for the 7.7 million eyeballs living in the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, us fans will have to ponder what we love and hate about this sport. 2022 might bring the last visit of UCLA to Memorial Stadium in a long time. If you ever wanted to see Cal play in Pullman, I’d advise you to go now, because there’s a chance it won’t happen again soon.
You, like me, may idly talk about giving up on this damned sport. But the TV networks that increasingly control the structure of the sport certainly don’t think we have the guts to change the dial. They’re probably right, and we will probably continue to watch the games while administrators and TV executives decide which schools get to remain in a power conference. This is the stupid sport we’ve all signed up for.
2022 College Football. Catch the fever?