Raising the bar: How high is No. 15 Cal football’s ceiling this season?

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If, before the season, you were to ask anyone unaffiliated with Cal where they expected the Bears to be heading into week five, few would have predicted an undefeated team sitting atop the Pac-12 and ranked top 15 in the AP Top 25 poll.

But, as any successful team knows, adding tallies to the win column correlates directly to a heightening of expectations.

Many are quick to point out that Cal has started the past three seasons 3-0, but through four games this season, the Bears have two road wins against Washington and Ole Miss, two teams that are traditionally among the nation’s elite programs. This is new territory for the entirety of Cal’s roster, and the buzz surrounding the team reflects that.

So, where does all this early season success leave the Bears?

The pinnacle of success in college football is a trip to New Orleans for the national championship game. But the only ounce of possibility the Pac-12 realistically has at sending someone to the College Football Playoff is if Oregon (3-1, 1-0) wins out, and they would also need Auburn, the Ducks’ only loss, to remain a top team in the country. If you’re wondering, Cal will almost certainly need a 12-0 season to warrant legitimate consideration from the playoff committee.

The summit of expectations for most Bears fans, though, is booking a trip to Pasadena for Cal’s first Rose Bowl appearance since 1959. The 2020 Rose Bowl will be played between the champions of the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences, assuming that neither make the College Football Playoff (in which case, the next-best team from that conference would earn a Rose Bowl bid).

Coming into the season, making the “Granddaddy of Them All” seemed like a pipe dream for Cal, but with each passing week, the chances slowly seem to creep higher and higher. ESPN currently gives the Bears a measly 1.3 percent chance to win the conference, but then again, that same analytics prediction system initially had Cal projected to win 4.9 total games this season, which could quite possibly be surpassed by the end of this week.

Still, the Bears face an excruciatingly tough conference schedule with road trips to Oregon and Utah, and no conference matchup is ever a guaranteed win. Barring major injury, though, there shouldn’t be a game that is truly unwinnable for Cal.

Coming into the season, I said on The Daily Californian’s “One Golden Moment” podcast that Wilcox’s defense has the ability to keep this team in any game, and I will stand by that until the facts say otherwise.

For now, they don’t — Cal has held 11 straight opponents to under 24 points, and even with a slow start and a banged-up linebackers group, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter and the Bears were able to pull it together against the Ole Miss Rebels to keep the winning streak alive.

Assuming their consistency continues, the eyes fall on the ability of Beau Baldwin and his offense. There is reason for optimism, as quarterback Chase Garbers is coming off of his best game in a Cal uniform, throwing for four touchdowns and over 350 yards against Ole Miss. Injuries across the offensive line have been the primary concern as of late, but if the Bears can find a way around that, they could become one of the most feared opponents in the Pac-12.

If the offensive performance in Oxford proves to be a trend rather than an outlier, then it is reasonable to not only hope for eight or nine wins but to expect a final record as such. Who knows, maybe even double-digit victories could be in the picture. But if having such a dangerous passing attack was indeed a fluke, the Bears may end up in a similar postseason scenario as last season, finishing with six or seven wins and playing in a lower-tier bowl game.

Only time will tell how talented the Bears truly are. Even with the team earning national respect lately, the odds are still against them. But if there’s anything we know about this Cal team, it’s that they find a way to win.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].