And now, the end is near

It would be easy to sing the praises of the Cal football team and its head coach, Justin Wilcox. A victory against an SEC school, no matter how ugly, is a huge step forward for a team trying to assert a play style and identity that will live on long after this now-promising season. Even if they had to fight and claw their way back to win against Weber State last week, doing the same this week against Ole Miss proved some measure of consistent growth. It proved that this team will fight — and that’s all Wilcox can ask for.

But barely beating one of the bottom feeders of the SEC — one playing out of conference, more than 2,000 miles from home, with a totally new coach and a self-imposed postseason ban — just isn’t the same as downing Sam Darnold and the Trojans. It’s not the same as getting on the track in Autzen Stadium to play Oregon, and it’s not the same as walking into the den at UCLA. Don’t even get me started on Stanford, the years of Big Game inequity, and downright Little-Brotherhood, that this Cal team will need to contend with when it makes its biennial trek south to Palo Alto.

Nearly every big play that came against the Rebels, and there were a few, came with an asterisk. The Bears’ two first-half interceptions came intertwined with two one-play touchdown drives in which the defense looked completely outmatched. The starting Rebel kicker tweaked his hamstring during an extra point for one of those touchdowns, and walk-on freshman replacement Luke Logan missed a field goal that would have given his team a late lead. Cal couldn’t stop the Rebel running game before starting center Sean Rawlings got injured in the first half. The entire Ole Miss offensive line needed reshuffling, and the new faces missed assignments under the bright lights.

The Bears, though, handled their business.

This win was impressive, as were the two that came before it. But lots of Power-5 teams can get their team through the pre-conference schedule relatively unscathed. Hell, even now-pariah Sonny Dykes registered an 8-3 record through his tenure in the preseason. Success before the real games begin, while fun to watch, doesn’t really mean anything once the PAC-12 matchups begin. Remember in 2015 when the Bears beat the Texas Longhorns in Austin to go to 3-0, and they were suddenly going to win the Pac-12? Alas, they ended up in the Armed Forces Bowl. Snore.

And the national polls back this theory up. All four of the most respected rankings, the AP, the Coaches’, and USA Today polls have left Cal out of their top 25. These rankings are no fluke: The Bears haven’t been left off by accident, even after beating Ole Miss. And looking at the lists, noticing that the still-winless Florida State Seminoles are ranked No. 11 on the coaches’ poll, it’s clear why. Cal’s early season successes have historically proven more fluke that fact. Through some combination of poor coaching, injuries and dumb luck, the Bears rarely find themselves in significant postseason games.

The onus then falls on Wilcox, like it has and will all season, and he hopes for many seasons to come. The defense looks not just legitimately better, but legitimately good. Linebacker Devante Downs continues to play out of his damn mind, and, as Wilcox alluded to post-game, the corners that got toasted for those long Ole Miss touchdowns were the same ones making game-winning pass break ups by night’s end. The team is getting better, there’s no doubt about that. But whether Cal’s improving quickly enough to make a run this year at contention for a PAC-12 title remains to be seen, and highly unlikely. I hate to say it, but this 3-0 start could feel like a lifetime ago by Thanksgiving. But a fond memory doesn’t mean much.

Austin Isaacsohn covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @austinisaacsohn.