I remember sitting in the north end zone seats at Memorial Stadium — about halfway up — on a cold, wet November day as a 5-6 Bears team fought for bowl eligibility in its season finale.
This was not Saturday night. This was four years ago, when I was a senior in high school. Cal was facing a Washington team that was also trying to become bowl eligible. I remember that day being so cold and so wet that everyone just wanted to get out of there, and I think Steve Sarkisian, Washington’s head coach at the time, agreed, because he chose to go for a touchdown — and a win — on 4th-and-goal with two seconds left instead of kicking the field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
This play happened on the opposite end of the field from me — I could barely see it — but I can remember Chris Polk rumbling into the end zone as if I had been standing right there. Game over. Washington won.
That was the most frustrating loss I have ever seen in person. Cal had won eight games the season before, so to finish 5-7 was a huge disappointment. And it was against Washington, no less, a team that hadn’t been to a bowl since 2002 and was a laughing stock for most of my adolescence.
Cal had just been blown out by Stanford and had lost to Oregon in a thriller (the infamous fake injury game) the two games prior. Three straight losses to close out a season. It was miserable. And I was soaked and freezing and had a two-hour drive home.
So I understand why Cal fans are frustrated now. After a 4-1 start, this year’s team lost six of its final seven games and now has a 5-7 record. The season is over.
But that level of frustration also isn’t really fair to this team. At the beginning of the season, I pegged the Bears to win four games and people (read: my Daily Cal coworkers) thought I was too optimistic. I didn’t see anyone, except for huge Cal homers, pick the Bears to be bowl eligible. Once the initial frustration settles down, fans should realize that to come within 14 yards of bowl eligibility is an accomplishment, not a disappointment.
It’s unfair that Cal raised expectations by beginning the season 4-1 on a ludicrously easy start to the year. And it’s unfair that the team’s schedule got insanely tough after early October, making it look like the Bears collapsed halfway through the season when really they just played tougher opponents. (By the way, Cal faces an equally back-loaded schedule next year, so get ready now for more late-season disappointment).
It’s also unfair that Cal and Stanford both entered the Big Game with identical 5-5 records, leading many to believe that the Bears, playing at home, could top the Cardinal. But those 5-5 records were hardly the same, as Stanford had played much tougher opponents, and every advanced metric in college football at the time put Stanford above Cal. The Bears should have played better, but that can hardly be called a surprising loss.
If Cal had played its schedule backward this year, fans would be elated at the strong finish instead of disappointed at the end. This season should be taken as a whole and as a step forward for a program that is now expecting to take another one next year.
And next year should be a big step. Cal could return players who contributed 99.7 percent of the team’s offensive yardage from this season, plus three out of its five starting offensive linemen. The #BearRaid should be one of the best offenses in the country in 2015.
On the defensive side of the ball … Well, it can’t be worse than this year, right? Oh, that’s what we said at the beginning of this season? Well, never mind.
But that conversation is neither here nor there. Cal has a long way to go, and there are legitimate reasons — from the penalties to the defensive lapses to the weird decisions — to think Sonny Dykes may not be the long-term answer as head coach. But those calling for his head after this season are premature.
For now, 5-7 is better than anyone expected, and the team deserves some credit.