It’s safe to say that most people had very low expectations for the Cal football team this season. A new coaching staff with very few of its own recruits, a new defensive scheme and a starting quarterback not being announced until less than a week before the first game of the season makes it seem reasonable that people were and are skeptical. This also explains the general surprise emanating from Cal fans everywhere after the Bears went on the road to the University of North Carolina last weekend ─ as 12-point underdogs ─ and came out victorious, 35-30, after a back-and-forth battle.
The one person, however, who didn’t seem surprised at all, was none other than Cal head coach Justin Wilcox.
“We expected to win the game. Again, all due respect to North Carolina, we expected to win the game,” Wilcox said in his postgame presser. “We knew it would be a battle and we knew there would be some adversity along the way.”
Clearly, somewhere there is a discrepancy between the coaching staff and the fans which should be addressed. In fairness to the fans, they had little exposure to the team during training camp, and were using the game against the Tar Heels as the measuring stick for the season. The coaches obviously had a much better idea of what the team is capable of, and certainly of what UNC was bringing to the table.
In setting low expectations, fans were operating from the point of view that they had gotten used to in the Sonny Dykes era ─ where defense was not at the top of the list of priorities. This mindset was exacerbated by the fact that Cal’s schedule was ranked as the most difficult in the nation.
I, myself, am most certainly guilty of thinking similarly, as I predicted the Bears to finish the season 4-8, and the Tar Heels were not on that list of four. After the UNC win, it is admittedly hard for me to see Cal finishing this season with only four wins, especially considering the bevy of mistakes that the Bears were able to get away with. I assume that the offensive errors that included errant early passes and, more importantly, the two interceptions by Ross Bowers will diminish throughout the season.
That being said, before I go so far as to say that Cal will blow away expectations and finish with a winning record, we should take a step back to recognize the main reason Cal was able to play as well as it did against UNC: the Tar Heels’ quarterback situation was far less clear than the somewhat foggy Cal depth chart.
Brandon Harris and Chazz Surratt split snaps, and neither was particularly impressive. So while the Bears’ defense certainly deserves credit for forcing a fumble, two interceptions and a turnover on downs, it is still very hard to judge how much improvement there has actually been since Dykes’ departure.
I think a safe description of Cal’s outlook at the moment is “cautiously optimistic.” Some of the plays that the Bears made on both sides of the ball were no doubt admirable, but there was still ample room for improvement. And while this year was billed by most, including some of the new coaching staff, to be a transition year, maybe that description has more of a positive spin one week into the season.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].