Mid-season(ish) check in: Can 2021 be salvaged?

Cal's remaining schedule is very, very manageable, but there's plenty of doubt about whether or not the Bears can take advantage.

Let’s start with the bad news, which you’re all well aware of already. Cal is 1-4 and coming off one of the worst losses of the Justin Wilcox Era. There are only 7 games left to salvage the season.

But the good news? Let’s take a quick gander at the resumes of the rest of the teams left on Cal’s schedule:

Probably a good team, has QB issues

Oregon

Good relative to the Pac-12, but as chaotic as they come

UCLA

Different flavors of bad

Colorado (0-4 vs. FBS competition, blown out three straight games)
Oregon State (4-2, lost to bad Wazzu and Purdue teams)
Arizona (0-5, blown out three times)
USC (3-3, blown out three times, very head-coach-less)
Stanford (3-3, blown out twice)

There’s this tendency in college football to assume everybody outside of 10 to 15 teams are actively bad, which isn’t true. But the Pac-12 this year is, in fact, quite bad. Bad by any standard you might use. Bad by its own standards, and bad within the context of 2021. Consider:

Pac-12 in the SP+ rankings:
Arizona State (12)
Utah (25)
UCLA (36)
Oregon (39)
USC (50)
Washington (54)
Oregon State (65)
Cal (75)
Wazzu (80)
Stanford (89)
Colorado (106)
Arizona (109)

If you take all of the power 5 teams plus Notre Dame and asked for the median team, it would be UCLA. Yes, the Pac-12 has exactly two teams that are above average power 5 teams, and eight decidedly below average P5 teams. I think the numbers are probably underrating Oregon, but for our purposes they do the job. Would you like a list of non-Pac-12 power 5 teams who have a worse SP+ ranking than Cal? Sure you do!

  • Duke

  • Northwestern

  • Illinois

  • Kansas

  • Vanderbilt

Of the 10 worst power 5 teams, half are from our beloved conference of champions! And Cal has dodged a scheduling bullet by avoiding both Utah and ASU in favor of Colorado (lol) and Arizona (looooooool). This reality means two things:

  1. Cal truly does have a chance to salvage the season

  2. Fans must decide how much this means within the context that Cal will face very few teams left who are even decent.

That first item can only happen if Cal’s coaching staff can fix some of the issues that have plagued the team all season long. Still, what might give Cal fans more optimism than fans of other struggling Pac-12 teams is that Cal has at least shown the ability to play decently on both sides of the ball, albeit in different games.

Can the offense that threw all over the field against TCU and Washington show up every game? Can Cal scheme protections against high end edge rushers to give Chase time? Can Cal carve out more consistent production in the running game?

Has the secondary turned the corner in their last six quarters, or is this just a blip? Can tackling be improved in-season? Will Cal find any kind of consistent pass rush without Brett Johnson? Is there any way we might see a healthy Brett Johnson?

Can special teams just stop shooting itself in a the foot?

Honestly, I expect this team to improve in the final 7 games of the season, if only because this level of performance is outside of the norm for the Justin Wilcox era, and some regression to the mean seems inevitable. But if that happens, will it actually result in wins, or more close losses? And if the result is wins, will it be enough that Cal could reach bowl eligibility, and will it change any minds about the long-term direction of the program?

Which brings us to point two mentioned up above. Let’s imagine that Cal beats Arizona and Colorado with relative ease. Let’s also imagine that Cal grabs a tight home win over Oregon State, and steals a back-and-forth Big Game over Stanford. That’s four wins over very, very beatable teams. Let’s also imagine that Cal steals an upset win over one of the other three teams on the schedule, which would probably be a headless USC at home.

Would 6-6 and a bowl game be seen as a tremendous recovery that restores faith in the Wilcox regime? Or would it be seen as a very middling season against one of the worst Pac-12s in recent memory?

I hope this is the type of debate you and I are having come late November, because the alternative is more losses at the hands of teams that are also struggling in their own distinct ways.

The rest of the season begins this Friday against Oregon, who beat a now-rampant-looking Ohio State back in week two but has spent the last two weeks playing down to below average conference opponents.

Maybe Oregon spent their bye week fixing an iffy passing game, and they’ll use this opportunity on national TV to demonstrate that last week was a blip. Maybe Oregon doesn’t have a QB, and with Thibodeaux suspended for the first half, they play their 3rd straight mediocre performance and Cal has a puncher’s chance for the road upset.

The chance to redeem the season begins on Friday.