I think I share the feeling of most Cal football followers that we don’t really know what to make of this season. The Bears’ latest campaign seems to be a jumbled mess of highs and lows, one that, despite the losing record and the abysmal Pac-12 record of 2-7, seems to have a positive aura about it. And yes, the numbers don’t all show grand improvement on the Sonny Dykes era, but there is something to be said about some of the accomplishments this team saw this season.
That’s almost certainly because we have gotten used to such mediocre football in Berkeley over the past few years, with a tumultuous few years with Dykes at the helm as well as a putrid showing in the final year of the Jeff Tedford era.
With one bowl appearance since 2012 and numerous blown opportunities ─ winnable road games last year at Oregon State, Arizona State and San Diego State as well as a 2014 home loss to UCLA come to mind ─ which could have increased the bowl appearances under Dykes to three, this season’s numbers actually seem to fit with the trend.
The cynicism that has come to represent Cal football followers can best be described by a tweet after this year’s Big Game from my former editor and co-football beat writer which reads, “hey cal, at least it wasn’t 2013.”
While I too am guilty of being equally ─ and probably even more ─ cynical about Cal football, I think now is a good time to reconsider that mentality, because there was indeed something about this first season under Justin Wilcox that signals better fortunes ahead.
While the aforementioned tweet was bathed in cynicism of somebody who has watched Cal falter for years, I view the literal positivity of that tweet as more indicative of the culture shift that Wilcox has brought with him this season.
This season came with its own share of blown opportunities and mistakes, but after Friday’s loss at the Rose Bowl to UCLA which knocked the Bears out of guaranteed bowl eligibility, there was a fighting spirit in the words of downtrodden players and coaches alike, ready to get back to work immediately.
None other than redshirt sophomore quarterback Ross Bowers’ words displayed the desire for improvement best.
“I think this just put a whole bunch of motivated guys in a pissed off mood this whole offseason. Excuse my language, this is not us. We are not losers,” Bowers said. “It’s not the teams of old with this mentality of, you know, if we get to a bowl game that’s great. Don’t get me wrong, it would have been great today, but we’re not settling for a bowl. We want to win every single game we play in and we got to make sure this offseason that we put ourselves in that position.”
Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more inspired at a Cal football press conference.
What his words ─ with sentiment also echoed by running back Patrick Laird, linebacker Alex Funches and Wilcox himself ─ told me was so much more than the usual “trust the process,” “focus on fundamentals,” ideas that were prevalent during the Dykes era. Friday’s presser showed me an inner self-belief in the future of the program, and no lingering doubts.
And that’s ultimately what this season has been all about.
So now take into account the fact that three of Cal’s losses this season were by 3 points or less, that the offense operated nearly all season without star wide receiver and deep threat Demetris Robertson, that the team suffered numerous season-ending injuries and that Wilcox was hired too late to have significant influence on recruitment.
I see something promising brewing in the horizon. Cal no longer has to settle for being the breeding ground for plebeian football. Predicting Cal to be national champions next year would be getting miles ahead of myself, but an improvement from what we’re used to in Berkeley ─ book it.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].