The only silver lining to a 1-11 season is that there is essentially nowhere to go but up.
After experiencing a 2013 campaign that can only be called disastrous, Cal has spent the offseason retooling its team — both in terms of personnel and coaching — in search of the elusive first FBS win of the Sonny Dykes era. No unit has been exempt from an overhaul, but most of the change has centered on Cal’s defense.
The Bears trotted out arguably the worst defense in the country last season. Cal had the second-worst scoring defense out of 123 FBS teams in college football last season, allowing more than 45 points per game to its opponents. It had the worst pass defense in the nation, allowing more than 25 passing yards more per game than the next-worst defense while intercepting only five passes all year. While Cal’s rushing defense fared better, it still ranked only in the bottom third of college football squads, and the Bears’ defense as a whole allowed the second-most yards nationwide.
Not all of the blame for this falls on then-defensive coordinator Andy Buh. Cal experienced a litany of injuries in 2013, especially on the defensive side. Brennan Scarlett, one of the team’s better pass rushers, didn’t play a snap in 2013 after injury complications kept him sidelined since midway through the 2012 campaign. Cal lost safety Avery Sebastian after less than 30 minutes of action last season when he tore his Achilles tendon in the first half of the first game in 2013. Sebastian, a tackling machine, had recorded 11 tackles and an interception in that first half, and Cal struggled to find a competent replacement for him all year. Stefan McClure couldn’t make it through five games before a knee injury put him on the sideline for the rest of the season. And Mustafa Jalil, who was expected to contribute to the defensive line,couldn’t even make it onto the field for a game, as a knee injury plagued him.
Cal is expected to get all four of those players back this season, although Sebastian is dealing with a quad injury and isn’t 100 percent healthy yet. Other players who missed time — including linebackersChris McCainand Nick Forbes — have been replaced with competent starters. Even without the returning players, defense is bound to get better. During the offseason, Cal hired Art Kaufman from the University of Cincinnati to replace Buh as the defensive coordinator. Kaufman took a defensive unit that allowed 388 yards per game in 2012 and cut that number to 315 the next season — good for the coordinator of the ninth-ranked defense in the country.
Though still not a talented unit, it’s not unreasonable to expect a healthier Cal defense to take a step up — even a large one — this year, considering the place where Cal is starting after last season. A defense simply can’t be one of the worst in the country without a series of exceptionally bad breaks, and though Cal has already felt the injury bug this season — linebacker Nathan Broussard is the most notable preseason injury — it’s unlikely it can be as prolific as last year, and Cal will almost certainly improve.
“We don’t really have the deepest team out here,” said Stefan McClure. “Guys are just going to have to step up and be ready to go, and guys are going to have to grow up fast.”
The offense also comes into the season with a sense of optimism. Cal’s receiving core was the lone bright spot on last year’s squad, and it comes into 2014 even better on paper. The only real loss is Richard Rodgers — a good player but not a good fit after converting from tight end to receiver — and Cal has added Trevor Davis, who had to sit out last season after transferring from Hawaii. With returning starters Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper — along with the likes of Darius Powe, Stephen Anderson and Maurice Harris — receiver is easily Cal’s deepest position. Additionally, in an offense that often utilizes four or even five wide-receiver sets, having depth there is crucial. That core will provide plenty of weapons for sophomore quarterback Jared Goff’s continued development.
Cal’s offense still has a shaky-at-best offensive line and lacks a true No. 1 option at running back, but the biggest reason for optimism has less to do with the personnel and more to do with the system. “Air raid” offenses such as the one Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin run have historically taken a few seasons to truly get going. Dykes himself went 5-7 at Louisiana Tech his first season before leading the team to back-to-back bowl invitations in the next two seasons. Mike Leach, who runs a similar system at Washington State, went 3-9 in 2012 before taking the Cougars to their first bowl game in 10 seasons last year. Still, few of these teams fell as flat as the Bears did last season.
“We’re going to have to exorcise some demons around here at some point and win a ball game,” Dykes said.
The remedies for Cal’s problems last year are the opposite on each side of the ball. For the offense, continuity can be expected to help the team continue to implement the new system. On defense, a complete overhaul is necessary after last year’s debacle. The team as a whole should be expected to improve in 2014. At the very least, there’s no way the Bears could get much worse.