Part 1: How badly does Cal need Justin Wilcox to turn the corner?
Part 2: Defense
Part 3: Offense
Part 4: Special Teams
Predict the Season: Results
Practice Reports: Notebook 1; Notebook 2; Notebook 3; Notebook 4; Notebook 5; Notebook 6; Notebook 7; Notebook 8; Notebook 9; Notebook 10
Unit Previews: Offensive line; Wide Receiver; Running Back, Outside Linebacker; Defensive Back
Welcome to game week, Bears! As you can see from the constantly expanding list of links above, most of the season has been previewed! We’ll have a few more unit previews over the next few days along with some UC Davis content and the usual game week breaking news, but college football is back!
And though I honestly use an exclamation point in that last sentence, I’ll be honest: I’m not bringing as much enthusiasm this year as normal. Some combination of the Pac-12’s collapse, Brett Johnson’s injury, and a general sense of .500 Cal football malaise has me entering 2022 feeling relatively blah. I’ll still shout myself hoarse on Saturday, and I’m still expecting to be in attendance for 9 of Cal’s 12 games this year, but my ebullience has been diminished.
I say that as something of a disclaimer - my job here is still to be unbiased, and I’d like to think my melancholy isn’t impacted my analysis. But I’ll let you decide that as well, before the season plays out and we can compare my best guesses with the actual results.
Another item of transparency: I wrote much of this before news broke that Brett Johnson suffered a season ending injury. This may be an overreaction to one player going down, but it led me to revise predicted records down by one game in the best and worst case scenarios listed below. That’s usually not something I would consider for any non-QB situation, but such is how critical I think Brett Johnson would have been to the Cal defense.
Realistic Best Case Scenario
Like 2018, the Cal defense carries the team. With average to above-average players all across the two deep, it’s in competition for best defense in the Pac-12. Led by a breakout all-Pac-12 season from cornerback Lu-Magia Hearns, Cal’s defense gives the team a shot to win in almost every game. The loss of Brett Johnson hurts, and Cal’s point of attack defense is still a relative weakness, but the defense is still excellent at big play prevention, makes few mistakes, and doesn’t face many offenses good enough to really move the ball with consistent success.
Cal’s offense is comparatively less impactful, but the coaching staff knows their own strengths and weaknesses. The line isn’t dominant, but there’s enough talent at RB, WR, and TE to scheme around. Jack Plummer takes care of the ball and gives his playmakers enough chances in space that the offense normally scores enough to make a strong defensive effort stand up. And thanks to excellent seasons from two specialists at punter and kicker, Cal does a good job of controlling field position and cashing in precious points.
As a result, Cal takes care of business against the teams they are expected to beat, and generally are tough on the teams with more talent, and they pull an upset along the way.
Cal goes 8-4 (6-3), and enjoys a delightful bowl trip to San Diego as a reward for the breakthrough season we’ve been waiting for since Justin Wilcox was hired. The Big-10 comes calling over the offseason, takes most of the original Pac-8, meaning Cal gets to keep playing a mostly normal schedule but for way more money.
Realistic Worst Case Scenario
Before the season, the expectation around the conference was that Cal would be their typical selves under Justin Wilcox. Defense good, offense bad. And while the defense certainly isn’t the problem, neither is it the clear strength fans expected. Cal never finds a way to replace Cam Goode and Marqez Bimage at outside linebacker, and Brett Johnson’s absence is glaring. Cal’s defensive line and OLBs struggle both against the run and rushing the passer, and the result is a defense that can’t get off the field. Meanwhile Cal boasts a bevy of solid players at inside linebacker and in the secondary, but nobody individually steps up to become a big time playmaker, and opposing offenses find ways to dink and dunk their way down the field.
Meanwhile, the Cal offense collapses. Ben Coleman struggles with the transition from left guard to left tackle, and Cal never finds a solution at left guard to replace Coleman or at right tackle to replace Valentino Daltoso. The line takes a step back from last year, but now they’re protecting a QB who can’t make plays with his legs. The offense is constantly off schedule and plagued by sacks and QB fumbles. Every defense crowds the line and plays press coverage knowing that Cal hasn’t a prayer of holding up in protection and going deep. The season ends without anybody having a good idea of what Cal’s playmakers can do because they simply don’t get touches in advantageous situations.
Cal finishes the season 3-9 (2-7). Cal considers eating Justin Wilcox’s recent extension less than one year later, but doesn’t have the money as the Pac-12 collapses. The B1G takes Oregon and Washington but leaves the Bay Area schools behind, leaving Cal in dire financial straights trying to run a huge power conference athletic program without bringing in anything close to power conference revenue.
Most Likely Scenario
A defense that’s above average, but not the best in the conference. An offense that’s below average, but not the worst in the conference. A team that’s largely competitive, but never dominant, and that can’t quite get over the hump.
Sound like something you’ve heard before? Justin Wilcox has a well established track record, and it would take some pretty massive changes to predict anything other than how every other season has gone in his tenure. After all, dude is 26-28 in total (25-25 if you remove the pointless 2020 COVID season). Cal has functionally been a .500 team, with year to year variations towards 5-7 or 7-5 based on close game outcomes.
Cal goes 2-1 in the non-conference season, but lets UC Davis and UNLV hang around longer than anybody likes and isn’t ever in the game against Notre Dame. The Bears right the ship and exact some revenge against Arizona, but can only split the Wazzu/Colorado road trip. With a 4-2 record at the halfway mark, Cal seems reasonably well positioned, but the 2nd half is much tougher. Cal goes 2-4 down the stretch. One of those wins is a Big Game win over Stanford, but that’s not enough for fans to wonder how long Justin Wilcox will get before he finally produces a winning Pac-12 record after Cal goes 6-6 (4-5). Meanwhile, the B1G keeps us all in limbo for a while longer waiting on damned Notre Dame.
Davis and UNLV will be bellweather games for this team. If we look like we're struggling to dominate or be the clear favorite in either game then we're in for a rough season. This is most applicable to the way the OL and DL will play, if both are struggling then we're in for a long season.
It's listed under the Most Likely Scenario section, but I think even in the Best Case Scenario the wins against Davis and UNLV are no more than two scores. We know Wilcox likes to keep the playbook barely cracked against early teams we're supposed to be at and that leads to closer games than necessary. I imagine he'll be busting it wide open vs. Notre Dame if we keep it close, or against Arizona the next week if we don't. But these next two weeks may be less pleasant than some are hoping for.
So, I'd suggest judging our capabilities by individual effort and defensive coverage rather than hoping for big score differentials.