College football bowl season is weird.
Star players projected to dazzle under the national television spotlight are far too often thrown off their game because of a weekslong layoff. Others opt to sit out postseason festivities entirely. But even as enticing as ESPN’s Capital One Bowl Mania is, the only thing certain is that Clemson and Alabama will be meeting in the national championship every other year for the next century.
That is, until the College Football Playoff finally expands beyond just the top three teams in the nation — and Notre Dame. Sorry, Rudy.
Like I said, bowl season is in a league of its own. But college football itself is weird, too.
When the 2018 Cal football team took the field for its season opener back in September, the team’s offensive depth chart included 2017 starter Ross Bowers at quarterback, Patrick Laird in the backfield, Kanawai Noa and Vic Wharton III split out wide, Ray Hudson at tight end, Patrick Mekari protecting Bowers’ blind side, and a number of other expected faces.
When that same team took the field for the second half of its 10-7 Cheez-I(n)t Bowl defeat at the hands of the TCU Horned Frogs, it was a shell of its former self — in more ways than one. Fifth-year senior Chase Forrest had relieved redshirt freshman Chase Garbers (yup) of his duties under center, Christopher Brown Jr. (OK?) was in Laird’s shoes, Moe Ways and Nikko Remigio (didn’t see that coming) joined Jordan Duncan as Forrest’s primary targets, while Ian Bunting, Will Craig and others rounded out the pack on the line.
Unfortunately for the blue and gold faithful, the script wasn’t perfect — nor expected — for how the team’s 2018 season unfolded and concluded. Thanks to injuries and a unique combination of both good and bad mojo, it’s clear that one side of the ball strutted forward, while the other retreated into, well, a shell of its former self. That’s about as lopsided as a rebuild gets.
The final result is a 7-6, 4-5 record, one that accomplished a fraction of the team’s primary goal for 2018 — go to and win a postseason contest. And despite one of the sloppiest performances in the history of bowl games on the offensive side of things, many view seven wins as a step in the right direction, Cheez-It Bowl champs or not.
I once advocated for Cal fans to appreciate the evolution of Justin Wilcox turning the Bears around, which 2018 certainly encompassed. But half of the team seizing its calling card as one of the top defenses in the country while the other is no closer to consistency than Shaq shooting free throws isn’t the end goal for anybody who has seen their fair share of frustration in Berkeley.
Four quarterbacks received scrutinized playing time under Beau Baldwin’s supervision this season, and every single one concluded the season with a sour taste in their mouth. For instance, in the aftermath of an unfortunate midseason stretch that turned him into public enemy No. 1, the team’s most explosive offensive weapon — Brandon McIlwain — wound up with zero playing time in either the team’s ninth straight loss at the hands of Stanford or the undeniable shakiness that was the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl.
It shouldn’t matter that McIlwain has privately been transitioning into a role as a receiver and a tailback, especially given the expectation that Garbers and UCLA transfer Devon Modster are expected to be the leading candidates for starting quarterback in 2019.
Leaving him out of the fold and seeing Garbers and Forrest struggle to read the eyes of safeties and throw across their bodies leaves us all with the last of many 2018 “what if?”s. Because unfortunately, 2018 will forever be remembered as the year the Bears’ defense was (finally) a force to be reckoned with, while the offense wasn’t even half of what it was under the Sonny Dykes regime.
That’s not to say that Dykes was far superior to Wilcox and Baldwin at getting the offense to get going — I’m confident that Wilcox is rightfully the face of this program’s future, and Baldwin is better than what 2018 wound up producing. But what Dykes and Wilcox now share is the fact that both sides of the ball haven’t clicked at the same time under each of Cal’s most recent commander in chiefs.
That’s the difference between a 10-2 team competing for the Pac-12 title and a 7-5 team competing on a baseball field on the day after Christmas — both offense and defense (and special teams) clicking on all cylinders together to make a team competitive to its fullest extent.
Now that we’ve reached a new calendar year, I beg the question for 2019: Is it possible to re-fix something (the offense competing at the top of the Pac-12) that was the talk of the town just a few years ago? Realistically, not likely when Justin Herbert is returning to Oregon and Utah is on the cusp of finally cracking a Pac-12 North powerhouse.
What overcoming expectations entails is that something drastic has to happen for Cal to take the so-called “next” step in Wilcox’s tenure, given how other Pac-12 schools stack up at this juncture.
Despite the departures of linebackers Jordan Kunaszyk, Alex Funches and a few other defensive studs, there’s minimal concern for Tim DeRuyter’s half of the gridiron. Cameron Goode is prepared for a widely anticipated return from injury, Evan Weaver is back for more “Mr. Incredible”-esque appearances, and the secondary is expected to retain all four starters.
The offense should be prepared for an (extreme home) makeover, one way or another. Time will tell whether Baldwin will receive another chance to generate enough offense to get this program further than the Cheez-It Bowl, but if there’s one thing for certain for Garbers, McIlwain and company — things can only go up from here.
Parting words for 2018: Cal fans don’t have to love McIlwain’s fourth-quarter mistakes, Garbers’ youth, the mystery surrounding Bowers’ injury, or the fact that the “Forrest plays hero” script was torn in two. Instead, they should enjoy the perfect nonconference showing, the wins over Washington and USC, and the relief that no interceptions will be thrown until next fall. This was just year two for Wilcox — one that was more weird than bad — and they say the third time’s the charm for a reason, right?
College football is weird. But even by Cal’s standards, this season was extra weird. See ya (7-6, 4-5) 2018. Let’s bring on (TBD, TBD) 2019.