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Cal Football Season Preview Part 5: Best case, Worst case, and Final Predictions
What range of possibilities are in store for the 100th year of football at Memorial Stadium?
Photo credit: Cal Football twitter
Over the last two years when I’ve done this exercise, my window of possible results has narrowed. That is because I felt I had gotten a pretty good handle on how Justin Wilcox built his team, and the strengths and weaknesses inherent to how he was able to recruit and deploy his roster.
And then Wilcox, following a hugely frustrating 2022 season, blew it all up, and I’m less certain about what will happen than any year since before Chase Garbers became an established QB.
As you’ll see below, the pure difficulty of Cal’s schedule acts as its own limitation - if there were fewer teams with high levels of proven play, I might have gone even crazier with my possibility margins here.
Realistic Best Case Scenario
All of the off-season changes to the coaching staff and roster construction process pay major dividends, as Cal is the bounce back team in the Pac-12. And though it’s a new look Justin Wilcox team, some things don’t change - the turnaround is still led by the defense.
A secondary that goes nearly 3 deep at every position with players who are good enough to start at the Pac-12 level. A linebacker group anchored by all-Pac-12 Jackson Sirmon. A D-line anchored by all-Pac-12 Brett Johnson.
It’s not hard to look at Cal’s defense on paper and see a defense that can play right alongside the dominant, Evan-Weaver-led units from the early Wilcox era. Brett Johnson in particular is a transformative player, the disruptive lineman the Cal defense hasn’t had in a decade, and his presence in the middle opens up space for his teammates to make plays around him. In a year where Pac-12 defenses mostly play 2nd fiddle to star studded offenses, Cal is an exception, the unit that nobody wants to deal with.
Meanwhile, Jake Spavital and Mike Bloesch work wonders on the Cal offense. It turns out that all of Cal’s linemen were physically capable, but let down by poor fundamental coaching and overly complicated plays that they couldn’t execute. With a simplified playbook that is focuses on what the line CAN do and now what it can’t, the stage is set for a truly special group of skill position players.
Which isn’t to say that Cal’s offense improves to the level of, say, an Oregon or a Utah. This is still a team with offensive line limitations and a new QB. But the Bears get more than enough plays from Jaydn Ott, Jeremiah Hunter, and the rest of their crew of skill position guys that the offense is roughly Pac-12 average. That, combined with a defense that competes for best in the league makes for a team that surprises on the west coast.
Cal cruises to a 3-0 non-conference record. The schedule (particularly on the road) is still brutal and the Bears drop competitive games to Washington, Utah, and Oregon. But a 5-4 conference record against THIS schedule is a major breakthrough. Cal goes 8-4, the Bears are rewarded with a Holiday Bowl trip, and begrudging respect from whichever power conference elects to pluck the Bears.
Realistic Worst Case Scenario
The 2022 Bears were a pretty solid team with two glaring, crippling weaknesses: offensive line blocking, and pass rush. Those weaknesses combined to largely nullify Cal’s strengths, and the result was the most disappointing season of the Wilcox era.
Wilcox and his staff, to their credit, changed plenty over the off-season in an effort to fix what went wrong in 2022. Significant coaching changeover! Massive portal additions! But were the weaknesses actually fixed?
As we discussed in the preview of Cal’s offense, no true tackles were added in the portal, and Cal’s depth chart indicates that they are hoping that the same players that struggled last year, plus Stanford transfer Barrett Miller, can fix things. Miller was probably a roughly league average interior lineman, and the transition from guard to tackle can be a difficult one.
In terms of defensive pass rush, the only new name is Florida transfer David Reese, who has yet to record a career sack in four active seasons. Much rides on the presumption that Brett Johnson can create a consistent interior push.
This is a long way of saying that it is entirely possible that, despite all of the change, Cal’s two biggest weaknesses will not be appreciably different in 2023.
And in this scenario, you have a 2023 season that is largely similar to 2022. An offense that has too many drives ended by negative plays, and a defense that can’t get off the field themselves as high end QBs get too much time to carve up a secondary that is good, but not perfect. Sam Jackson does make a handful of plays with his legs, but for every broken play that he saves, there is another play where he’s forced to make a decision too quickly, and it turns out to be the wrong decision.
And worse, the schedule is tougher. Five of nine Pac-12 games on the road. Five teams ranked in the pre-season top 18, plus another two teams in the also-receiving-votes category. A tough road game against a mid-tier AAC team. The pre-season media #2 team in the best FCS conference in the country. Likely wins are few and far between, and the schedule has plenty of plausible upsets.
If things go awry it’s easy to pencil in five virtually automatic losses, plus likely losses to Auburn and UCLA. Give Cal a win over Idaho and another win over somebody else (ASU? North Texas? Stanford?), and that’s a 2-10 season in the year Cal most needs to show proof they can be competitive. The ACC says no thanks, the Big-12 and Big-10 stay away, and Cal is faced with
Most Likely Scenario
Depth is a great thing to have in football. But it’s not a substitution for top end talent. Cal’s portal additions absolutely raised the floor, largely by protecting Cal from major injury impacts. But as it turns out, bringing in ~20 guys who play football as well as the guys already on the roster doesn’t drastically change the win/loss calculus.
The secondary is the best example of this phenomenon - Cal has roughly 12-14 dudes who they’re probably comfortable putting into the rotation, and that has value. But are the portal additions significant improvements on the solid dudes they already had? Maybe on the margins, but if Cal ran out a secondary made entirely of returners I think we’d be in solid shape too.
There has been enough turnover that there is more uncertainty than usual, which is why there is a greater gap between my best case and worst case scenarios. I would not idly dismiss the possibility that this team can be much better than last year, but I would not dismiss the possibility that things to very wrong either. But ultimately, I suspect that Cal has significantly raised the floor for the 2023 season, but not the ceiling.
Raising the floor has value - I think this depth of talent means that the coaching staff will be more likely to find positive answers at a few different positions and will weather injuries better, and that means that awful losses like last year’s Colorado game are less likely. If the 2023 roster played against Cal’s 2022 schedule, I think they would go bowling, maybe with margin to spare. I’d bet on the 2023 Bears to do well against the weaker teams on the 2023 schedule.
Ahh, but then we come to the schedule again. Cal should be able to out-talent Idaho and North Texas. ASU and Stanford should be messes. But that’s where likely wins dry up.
If you’re hoping that Cal will deliver on upside, you are resting all kinds of hope on the arms and legs of Sam Jackson. Football is not solely a game of QB match-ups, but for Cal to compete with the best teams on their schedule, they will likely need Jackson (or Finley or Mendoza) to not be completely overmatched compared to the many NFL-bound QBs set to terrorize Pac-12 defenses this year. I think there are reasons to be intrigued and reasons to be cautious, but ultimately expecting a first year QB playing behind a likely iffy line to lead Cal to wins against established teams is a bridge too far.
Put me down for 5-7, and don’t ask me what that means for Cal’s efforts to find a conference to call home, because I don’t want to think about it.