Season Preview 2021: Will the Real Golden Bears Please Stand Up?

Everybody outside Berkeley sees another middling team, but the Bears are quietly confident. After an aborted season, which is it?

Welcome to the 2021 football season; good lord has it been a long time.

Of course, the season opener vs. Nevada is still a touch less than four weeks away, but with the beginning of fall practice we have begun Write For California’s August-long season preview. Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at the upcoming season from as many angles as possible, in addition to reporting from fall camp.

One year ago, there were believers outside of Berkeley.

Cal finished 2nd in the pre-season Pac-12 media poll following a season that saw them finish 7-0 when Chase Garbers played 60 minutes. The Bears were getting actual first place votes ahead of a recruiting Death Star in Eugene. Everybody was back on offense, and the defense had plenty of experience. 2020 was supposed to be The Year. Or, at least, A Year Where Cal Finishes Above .500 In Conference Play.

Instead, the 2020 football season was somewhere between a farce and a disaster, depending on your point of view.

Now, nobody outside of Berkeley believes.

The 2021 pre-season poll puts Cal just barely above Stanford in a distant 3rd behind Oregon and Washington. Depending on the sports book, Vegas has an over/under of 5.5 or 6 wins with bowl eligibility hanging in the balance. The SP+ analytics system projects 5.4 wins and puts Cal 9th in the Pac-12, narrowly behind Colorado and narrowly ahead of Oregon State. The Massey index that collates various ranking systems also puts Cal 9th.

It’s not hard to understand why. While the 2020 season was goofy, the data still means something, and three of Cal’s four games featured performances that ranged from mediocre to disastrous. The ‘Cal wins when Chase Garbers plays’ argument took a big hit when Cal lost to two teams (Oregon St. and Stanford) that the Bears were supposed to outclass with their QB playing the entire way. The offense was easily the worst in the conference and the defense was merely average until they singlehandedly won what turned out to be the season finale vs. Oregon.

And yet there appears to be a quiet confidence from the Bears this year.

Perhaps because they view last year as a fluke of circumstance that should be thrown out. Perhaps because all those experienced players on offense will be back, but they actually know the offense this year. Perhaps because they’ve seen the talent the Cal coaching staff has brought in over the last two recruiting cycles on both sides of the ball, and there’s confidence that this is the deepest team since Justin Wilcox took over.

And maybe it’s the same kind of confidence that you would expect almost any team to project, and once the games actually start, it won’t mean much of anything.

Most years, I might be able to argue one way or the other, but thanks to the bizarre circumstances of the 2020 season, it’s hard to say anything with confidence. Basically, the Bears were given a mulligan on the 2020 season, and it’s up to them to prove right the people who were bullish a year ago, and prove wrong the people who are (anti?) bearish now.

How close are we to a complete mulligan? In terms of significant contributors from last year, the Bears have only lost Cam Bynum, Mike Saffell, Makai Polk, Jake Curhan, and Zeandae Johnson. Important players all, but when you lose so few players and get to add in a year of practice reps and strength and conditioning for high talent underclassmen, you’re probably coming out ahead in total.

So: will we get something like the 2020 Bears that we were promised, or something like the 2020 Bears that we actually got, but over a 12 game schedule?

It’s almost time for the Bears to answer that question, and it’s almost time for us to find out.