Cal is trapped in college football purgatory
The California Golden Bears can't do a full reboot and they can't stand still. Are they just stuck with Justin Wilcox for the foreseeable future?
In college football, there are some pretty simple rules.
The most time-honored? When your program is headed south, and there is no sign of a turnaround on the horizon, it is time to reboot from the top and start fresh.
Usually, this process requires some well-monied individual in a large mansion who owns many other mansions being called up for a sum of money that will find a college foot, the money is forked over.
The California Golden Bears are one of the few college football teams refusing to bow to these norms, despite these rather hopeless stats.
Cal has now lost 14 straight Power 5 games away from the Bay Area.
Cal has lost 13 straight games against ranked opponents.
Cal is 1-14 in its last 15 games against FBS winning teams.
Since Jaydn Ott broke out against Arizona, Cal has gone 2-10 in its last 12 Pac-12 games, winning those two games by a combined 10 points.
After sporting a bottom 30 scoring offense in 2022, Cal has flipped their dynamic and is sporting a bottom 30 scoring defense in 2023, offsetting any significant scoring gains the Bears offense made this offseason.
Cal is on the verge of its third full losing season in a row, with four winning opponents left and needing to beat two of them. They’re two losses away from never having a winning Pac-12 season with Justin Wilcox.
There isn’t much excitement with this program. Aside from the random major non-conference tilt, the Bears are extremely predictable these days. Bad team? Close for comfort win. Road game? Loss. Ranked team? Loss. Ranked team on the road? Humbling loss.
It doesn’t matter if the ACC is a step down from the Pac-12 in 2024; it’s still a competitive conference, and the Bears will be travelling many miles to get to those games. That level of performance isn’t going to get Cal past their previous normal of 6-6/7-5 under Justin Wilcox, and will likely result in similar results
Despite all that, I’d be shocked if Justin Wilcox ISN’T the Cal coach in 2024.
With the new, deeply disadvantageous ACC deal, Cal is going to already be short on the TV revenue needed to maintain a fully functional athletic department. To pay what amounts to around a $20 million buyout (approximately what Wilcox is owed this year if dismissed), and then go around and pay a new coach likely a similar amount doesn’t seem financially feasible this year, and maybe not even next year.
Additionally, major Cal donors are very unwilling to really make any major commitments to a new direction as long as athletic director Jim Knowlton is the one who will have to make the call. Knowlton was not forthcoming in the Cal men’s basketball search with his donor class, and even though Mark Madsen is looking like a promising hire, it’s likely that Mike Montgomery’s input was crucial to getting this done.
While you’d expect numerous Cal luminaries to weigh in this time around for football, trusting the man who handed Wilcox two bizarre extensions and put us in this precarious situations to nail another hire is asking a lot.
So Knowlton will have to be gone before any decision can be made. Perhaps the investigation of the Cal athletic director about his role in Teri McKeever’s misconduct can help accelerate that process, but given it took nearly a year of investigating to send McKeever packing, who knows when that wraps up.
So here we are Cal fans, stuck in football purgatory. This is why we stand still. We know the path we’re on is not ideal, but there is almost no wiggle room from a financial and leadership standpoint for major systemic change. There are likely coaching staff changes coming in the meantime for another reboot, but to expect any more is setting yourself up for sadness.
Justin Wilcox will be back. It’ll be a very warm seat he’ll be sitting on, but he’ll be back unless he doesn’t want to be back.
Oh yeah, Cal played a Pac-12 football game yesterday.
For the third time in fourth weeks, they found a new way to get dominated.
Utah allowed an early 7-0 lead by the Bears, then tied Cal on the train tracks and ran over them for the next two and a half hours. It was a redux version of Oregon State, only the line advantages were even more pronounced and the Utes never really needed to do anything in the air (only 128 passing yards).
Cal has lost Jackson Sirmon for the season on an already battered defensive front seven, along with Siaope Vatikani for significant time on the offensive line. This made it easy for the meanest lines in the conference to pile on in the ground game, leading to this exasperating stat:
Utah offense: 159 rushing yards
Utah defense: 158 rushing yards (What a day for Sione Vaki)
Cal: 66 rushing yards (Utah had 67 rushing yards after the first quarter)
If you were hoping that the Cal defense only struggled against great Pac-12 offenses, the Bears just gave up 150+ rushing yards and a 72 yard clincher to a converted safety with Utah starting a QB who was hospitalized two weeks ago.
I’m not sure what was going on in the defensive coaching gameplanning this week, but this is horrific. Losing your defensive quarterback in Sirmon is tough, but it should not lead to the dozens of missed tackles against a converted safety and hobbled quarterback.
The possession domination was equally staggering: After Cal went up 7-0, the Utes ran 46 of the next 58 offensive plays to run off 24 unanswered points. Lines are important.
After the Bears conceded just over 500 yards in the first five games of the season on the ground, Oregon State and Utah have piled up 520 yards rushing on Cal in two weeks. While the Beavers ground game has had its way most of the year, the Utes came into Saturday with 159 rushing yards total in its first two games.
It’s pretty evident that the Bears do not have the depth to handle significant injuries and beat quality Pac-12 opposition. Cal has lost by 27, 12 (although it was 20 before the garbage time TD), and 20 against its ranked foes, with four top-35 caliber opponents remaining.
The one silver lining: It is nice to see Fernando Mendoza showing some signs of life and generally giving Cal some potential for a breakthrough in the coming weeks. But his inexperience is still present on a number of his drives, so it’s not likely he can take that big leap forward in 2023 to push Cal to a great closing stretch. I hope he puts it all together, because that’s the only way I see the Bears making waves.
But he did get hurt. Who’s ready for the 50% chance of Round 3 of Ben Finley against USC?
As we head into the bye week, I offer up my brief thoughts on Justin Wilcox as steward of the Cal program, and where I stand:
As we’ve seen these last few weeks, Cal still has a lot of work left to be even a successful ACC program. As of when I’m writing this post, the Bears are currently sitting in the bottom half of the ACC in SP+, and are likely trending downward.
But unless our financial fortunes change for the better, Justin Wilcox will be our head coach in 2024. Likely 2025.
In most normal situations, a college program would reboot and find someone new. Instead, Cal's athletic leadership prioritized loyalty and academics and Big Game wins and then the Pac-12 collapsed and we got an ACC piecemeal deal. Two large Wilcox extensions later, here we are.
So unless you have a nine or ten digit friend who is ready to commit to Cal football excellence, your best bet is to get Cal alum everywhere to spend their money on NIL, so the Bears can get edge rushers, offensive line talent, and top tier skill players via the portal or recruiting. Let’s get the talent, then worry about the other stuff later.
Even if it doesn’t work out with Wilcox, we at least will have a talent base that gives us a chance to compete with the big powers of the sport. Regardless of who the Cal coach is, we need to invest in NIL heavily to upgrade our talent and prove that we belong in the final realignment cycle.
Because we are firmly on the bubble, and if we don't get picked, Cal as a major athletic program might not make it.
It's not great. I'm not thrilled. But we are where are. Until our financial environment drastically changes, we have to take the best path available to us.
College football purgatory is about as fun as it sounds.