Cal football is a nightmare

It's all on Justin Wilcox to wake Bear Territory up.

1-5 is a failure.

We can sugarcoat that Cal has seven straight losses by a combined 41 points (only 5.8 points per game).

We can look at the 46 yards the Bears could’ve picked up that would have landed them one more win and four more overtime coin-flips.

We can examine the close calls, moral victories, and think of the missed catches, and brutal luck we’ve faced in end-of-game situations.

But 1-5 is a failure.

Even with all the misery Bears fans have endured in their recent history, Cal has only reached the halfway point of a season with one win twice this century. There was the infamous 2001 campaign that doomed one coach, and the horrifying 2013 campaign that set the tone for the doomed tenure of another coach.

Cal is better than both of those teams by a considerable margin—the 2001 couldn’t score, the 2013 team couldn’t stop anyone from scoring—but the result is the same. All the teams are all in the cellar, with no clear outlook as to how to get better.

We keep on ending in the same place. Why?

Cal, to their credit, has been in essentially every game. However, this incarnation of Justin Wilcox-style football—run clock, limit possessions, give up tons of yards on defense but surrender as few points as possible—kind of puts Cal in these close matches by default.

When Cal piled up the close call wins in 2018 and 2019 on the way to two winning seasons, we thought it was a sign of good culture construction—center your identity around hard-hitting defense.

The defensive brutalism of 2018 made Cal a fascinating watch and also bizarrely good enough to upset the Pac-12 champs. In 2019 the offense was hardly good, but game enough to pair with that identity to potentially win 10 games, but injury misfortune sidelined that.

That identity is all but absent now. The Cal defense is still serviceable, but without Evan Weaver or Jaylinn Hawkins or Ashtyn Davis or Cam Bynum, there are no elite talents available to close the gaps.

With the defense trending backwards, the Cal offense has upticked in offensive production but still suffers from the same woes as its predecessors. Cal is unable to close drives, paired with baffling situational playcalling. Cal runs the ball fairly well, only to abandon it for inexplicable reasons.

The result is mediocrity everywhere. Cal does one thing right in one place, only for it to be immediately undone by something else.

Cal will jump to early two-score leads on Nevada and TCU only for either the offense or defense to fall apart for the next 40+ minutes. Cal will get blitzed against a horrendous Washington offense for one quarter and spend the rest of the game chasing. Cal will forget how to play football for nearly the entire game at Washington State. And Cal will rally in the second half to take the lead against Oregon in Autzen, only to see the defense unravel and give it right back ($).

Cal overachieving on the road is cancelled out by gruesome performances in Berkeley, where the Bears have simply mailed in quarters for no discernible reason against average Nevada and Washington State. For a program desperately in need of repeat ticket sales, those latter performances ultimately matter more.

After five losses like this (seven if you stretch it back to last season), if the results all end up being the same, you have to look at the process that gets you to 1-5 instead of the frenetic finishes.

So we’re back at coaching.

Coaching is what ultimately was Justin Wilcox’s calling card—even if he didn’t have the experience, he was going to go out and find it. He brought in a host of former head coaches to shoulder the load, delegated to their talents and have them ready for gameday. For awhile, with a team in transition from one style of football to the next, it seemed to work. It helped Cal upset Washington twice. It lifted Cal over USC for the first time in 14 years. It got Cal the Axe.

Many of those coaches are now gone. In their place, the replacements have not been up to the task. The units we were expecting to shoulder us have flashed at times but ultimately crumbled when we needed them to step up. The groups that we thought would take a leap forward have only marginally improved.

That lies on a coaching staff we expected to maximize our talent.

Bill Musgrave’s Cal offense has been pushing yards up these past two seasons, but runs out of gas when it’s touchdown time. Cal has jumped up almost a yard per play from 2019 to 2021 (bad to good, essentially), but the points per game has only hopped up from 21 points to 24 points. Chase Garbers has not taken significant steps forward. The offense is frustratingly stilted, abandoning the run often, settling for checkdowns on checkdowns, and unable to produce the explosiveness on a consistent basis.

The result is a frustrating Bears unit that is getting downfield and not putting points on the board. That wasn’t more evident than at the end of the Oregon game, with a maddening eight-play, five-yard sequence starting with first and three on the seven.

Peter Sirmon’s Cal defense suffers from the opposite problem. They have moments where they’re great (the first three quarters against Oregon), and other moments were they do not know how to finish (the fourth quarter against Oregon, where the lead the offense spotted them was immediately busted). Every game, the moment the offense finds a way to put it together, the defense seems to let loose its own shortcomings. The adjustments are coming too late to make a difference.

I don’t want to talk about the special teams. By now you know all the plays by memory.

So Cal is currently a mediocre team, with mediocre coaching, with mediocre execution, with terrible luck. That gets us to 1-5.

And now we get to the Wilcox question.

No need to sugarcoat it. Cal is in a bad place. So is Wilcox.

Wilcox made the decision to elevate Sirmon, who has been a step below Tim DeRuyter in scheming and adjustments. Wilcox made the call to go to the NFL for a journeyman offensive coordinator who seems unable to chart the course of the college game. Wilcox has retained Charlie Ragle, whose special teams has made a fundamental game-swinging error in five of our last seven losses.

None of those coaches has distinguished themselves positively in the last two months. Each has had half a season to figure things out, yet the results stay the same.

The development that was so present in our first few years of Wilcox just doesn’t seem to be there with this team. Some players (particularly our fifth-year quarterback) we were depending on to upskill have regressed. Others show promise, only to never be seen again. A few talents seem to see too few touches.

Looking long-term, after one of Cal’s best recruiting classes in a decade in 2020-21, it’s starting to look like Cal will have one of its worst in 2021-22, with our our QB and RB commits all abandoning ship two months before signing day. Although the portal could solve a lot of problems, as we’ve noted, transfers into Cal tend to be a lot harder to push into the door than at other places, given our finicky administration.

And yeah, 1-5 in 2021 is just a grave place to be. The Pac-12 is horrendous now compared to the one Wilcox joined in 2017, arguably in the worst state imaginable since the early 2000s. Oregon is technically in playoff contention, but that team we saw Friday seems destined to lose two or three more times. 9-4 could very well be the mark of the future Rose Bowl finalists.

The Bears aren’t getting roasted by the brutal 2013 slate, featuring nine bowl teams and five 10-win squads. Cal might not even face a team that wins ten games this year!

Cal has lost to a 2-5 Washington team that could fire their coach in two years time, a Washington State squad has fired their coach for being a crazy person, and a very average 3-3 TCU team that got lit up by Sonny Dykes.

This is not a good conference. And Cal still hasn’t won in it.

Fan morale is low. Cal had decent buzz around their program coming into the year and a solid season-opening crowd. They are now facing half-empty stadiums to wrap up 2021 and another potential offseason ticket exodus barring a drastic turnaround to end the season. It’s a nightmare.

The rest of the schedule appears to be a bunch of .500-type squads, two bottom-dwellers, and UCLA at the end, so yes, Cal can still win a bunch to close things out. But that’s cold comfort given the already month-and-a-half sample of average teams Cal has had the chance to right the ship against. Do we really see this Bears team suddenly clicking and running the slate against slightly worse competition?

Regardless, even a small improvement of luck and execution should ensure the return of Justin Wilcox for the 2022 season. He is well-liked among the donor community, Cal hasn’t exactly quit, and that buyout is a bit too much to stomach. It’s far more likely that there will be assistant reshuffling, a refresh, and a hope that a new group can turn the ship around.

To really have fate that a turnaround is possible under Wilcox come 2022, a finish of at least 5-7 with two wins over Stanford, USC, or UCLA feels like the barest of minimums, and even then I’m still picturing that endgame with a bitter taste in my mouth. 1-5 is just so high a hill to climb, and so many of those results felt preventable with better coaching.

Cal can’t just ponder along playing the same type of football that has kept them afloat. They need to elevate their game.

Because I think we can count on one hand the number of college football coaches who’ve flat-lined at 2-10/3-9 in Year 5 with a squad laden with veterans and somehow righted the ship afterwards.

Good, meaningful results need to come. Quickly.