That one felt pretty close, right? In a season in which so much has gone right in unexpected victories, the way the Bears hung around in the 120th Big Game made a classic win start to feel almost inevitable. But eventually, Stanford pulled away, just as it had in the past seven Big Games before Saturday, and a game that had the feel of a to-be magical contest turned out to just be an incredibly quick and fairly uneventful 17-14 Cardinal win. If the magic really has started to run out, Cal fans will have to quickly take stock of what exactly this season meant in the long term and what some early-season fun was worth.
If the Bears can go to Pasadena and get a post-Turkey day win over a 5-6 UCLA team that just fired its head coach, a .500 record and a bowl appearance should be more than enough for even the most stingy supporter to consider Cal head coach Justin Wilcox’s debut season a success. For a team that many picked to be among the worst of the Pac-12, a postseason appearance’s emotional resonance can’t be understated (and the financial reward can’t hurt the most indebted athletic program in the country).
Of course, a loss in the Rose Bowl to end the season wouldn’t all of a sudden make 2017 a failure. But, if the season does come to a close amid the palm trees, reflecting upon the year and thinking about how next season looks may become a lot less fun.
If Wilcox can’t snap the Bears’ Pac-12 road losing streak and his players don’t get a taste of December football, the assumption that things will continue to improve in 2018 will get tougher to make. For all the fun that the out-of-conference wins against North Carolina and Ole Miss were, those teams took some pretty bad beats later on in the season that dull the shine a bit. The defensive stomping of Washington State at home is one of Cal’s signature wins in recent memory, but with three huge contributors in James Looney, Raymond Davison III and Devante Downs graduating, the Bears taking another jump is no sure thing.
With Patrick Laird assumedly sticking around after his star-making season and the presumptive returns of speedy wideout Demetris Robertson and veteran running back Tre Watson, the offense definitely looks promising. But as his ugly fourth-quarter interception showed, quarterback Ross Bowers has yet to show much poise on deep throws, and although his pocket presence and accuracy have improved over the course of the season, his arm talent could prove to be a cap on his ability to lead a truly potent offense.
I don’t mean to paint an overly pessimistic picture, as I think Wilcox and his staff have done a phenomenal job this season and that there’s a lot to like looking forward with what’s a fairly young roster. But if the Bears end up under .500, before people assume a few games’ improvement with a second-year coach and start booking bowl game flights, there are clearly tough questions to face. A win over the Bruins, at the very least, would mean that we can wait a little while longer before we have to start asking them.