While the 5-7 start to Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox’s tenure with the Bears did not end with a bowl game appearance — despite appearing to be on track for one at different points — it certainly left fans with high expectations for Wilcox’s sophomore effort. Cal’s 2018 schedule once again seems destined to make for a dramatic season finish, with Pac-12 and perhaps national relevance on the line.
After last year’s dramatic road win over University of North Carolina, which showed off a new-look Bears football squad, the Tar Heels will travel to California Memorial Stadium for Cal’s premiere nonconference game. UNC’s offense was in flux last year, shuffling different players behind center because it was still unsure of who its quarterback would be.
The Tar Heels are in the same position this year, with a battle between redshirt sophomore Chazz Surratt and redshirt junior Nathan Elliott. If Cal’s defense comes out strong after another year of tutelage under defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, the Bears will have a good chance to start the season with another big win.
Next up will be a road game in Provo against a Brigham Young University team coming off its worst finish in more than 60 years (4-9). The Cougars’ offense was absolutely dismal last year, but they’ll be returning a talented senior quarterback in Tanner Mangum. If BYU is still working out the kinks of an offense revival, the Bears will have a good chance to nab another out-of-conference win. All that will stand before them and a 3-0 start will be lowly FCS program Idaho State.
Cal begins conference play at home against Oregon, which has to contend with the somewhat surprising departure of head coach Willie Taggart, who led the Ducks to a 7-6 record last season. But with dynamic junior quarterback Justin Herbert and a running game that absolutely gashed the Bears defense in a 45-24 win last year, conference play should begin with a bang.
A visit to Tucson will give Cal a chance to redeem its 45-44 double overtime loss to the Wildcats, but the defense will have its biggest test of the season up to that point in junior dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate, who ran for 137 yards against the Bears last year.
Cal then returns home, where the team will have to contend with college football legend Chip Kelly in his first year at the helm of UCLA football. It’s hard to know what to expect from the Bruins without the now-departed quarterback Josh Rosen, but it is difficult to envision a Kelly team that can be looked over. However, the Oregon State Beavers, after a 1-11 season, should be as close to a locked-in win as Cal has on its schedule.
It’s extremely plausible that the Bears are at 4-3 at this point, just as they were in 2017. And once again, the race to six wins and bowl eligibility will be frenetic.
Powerhouse Washington and USC programs are both on the docket, the former at home and the latter in sunny Los Angeles. While the Trojans have a hole at quarterback, both teams are Pac-12 favorites and extremely hard to get wins against. The Big Game against Stanford will take place at California Memorial Stadium, but Cal will have to overturn a lot of history to avoid its ninth straight defeat at the Cardinal’s hands.
Without marking any of those as wins, the Bears would need to beat Washington State on Nov. 3 and Colorado on Nov. 24, in the final week of the season. The latter half of that statement may put knots in the stomach of Cal faithful who recall the Bears’ collapse in Boulder last season that ended up being a key difference in finishing below .500.
While the core of Cal impressed in a lot of different areas last year, consistency was not one of its strengths, and that is likely to be the difference in the Bears’ bowl eligibility this year. No one can claim the schedule doesn’t give them a chance, so the rest is up to Wilcox and company.