Avoiding a sophomore slump: How Cal football can continue trending upward

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Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox’s tenure began last year with a truly shocking 35-30 win over the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, bucking the consensus of a double-digit Tar Heels win prediction. With UNC headed into California Memorial Stadium to begin Wilcox’s second year at the helm, although he’ll have home-field advantage and the betting line on his side, he’ll be missing the oh-so-important factor of surprise. And for this season’s overall success, that could be the difference.

The whiplash induced by the Bears’ change of direction last year is hard to quantify, but it may be best measured by how teams catch up to Wilcox’s style after an offseason’s worth of tape study.

After all, who can really blame UNC head coach Larry Fedora for not knowing last year that what had been among the worst defenses in college football would force three turnovers, that a quarterback making his first start could be unphased by three turnovers of his own and still put up more than 350 yards and four touchdowns, or that a third-string running back could pull off a 54-yard touchdown reception?

But on Saturday, no one is going to be surprised by what defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter can do, by Ross Bowers’ unflappable confidence or by Patrick Laird’s penchant for big plays anymore. The sophomore slump can affect a coaching staff just as much as any specific player, and especially so for those with as novel a blend of schemes as Wilcox and company. Without being able to catch teams off guard, there will be that much more of a premium on execution and consistency this time around.

This shift will be felt off the field as well. I believe that Wilcox deserves all the praise he received last year, but I still think that he benefited a great deal from simply not being Sonny Dykes. Dykes’ stubborn adherence to a single scheme and strategy and seemingly complete disinterest in defense made Wilcox’s mixture of an aggressive defense with an air-it-out offense seem all the more impressive. But as the sour memories of Dykes’ reign fade, Wilcox will only come under more and more scrutiny.

For instance, it’s hard to imagine anything but a first-year head coach getting away with the scant criticism Wilcox did for a late-season team collapse that wiped away what should have been a bowl appearance. I personally stand by Wilcox’s decision to go for two against Arizona at home in double overtime, even though it failed and cost Cal a crucial, statement win. But he better be sure that the further he gets along in his tenure, the less the general public will be charmed by his daring antics and the more results-oriented it will be.

I’m unsure of where the expectations for this year should reasonably be set. After coming within inches of a bowl appearance last year, that seems like the obvious next step. But with the departure of defensive cornerstones James Looney, Raymond Davison III and Devante Downs, along with the transfer of speedy wide receiver Demetris Robertson, perhaps expectations should be dialed down a bit. It will be a big task to keep hopes at a reasonable level, however, after getting so much done in what should have been a rebuilding year in 2017. Who can blame a fan base just asking for a bowl game?

Either way, the Tar Heels coming back around is the perfect trial by fire to start Wilcox’s sophomore campaign. I don’t imagine there will be another team on the Bears’ schedule as determined to prove it can beat Cal and clamp down on exactly what the Bears did best last year. That’s part of what’s hard about staying good. The better you get, the more your opponents want a piece of you.

Andrew Wild covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.