There’s still one more game left to be played in 2019.
But hey, it’s never too early to look ahead.
I’ll preface my words by affirming that I’m a pessimist. A year after Cal football finished 7-6 overall and 4-5 in conference play, I predicted a less than stellar 6-6 showing from the Bears in 2019.
My justification for this — much to the chagrin of the lovely folks over at California Golden Blogs — was expecting a similar season to the previous year from an offensive standpoint, with flashes of consistency mired in punts and the “occasional” interception. I also anticipated a slight drop-off in the defensive production that brought the Bears’ secondary, better known as “The Takers,” into the national spotlight.
Twelve games, two quarterback injuries and 173 Evan Weaver tackles later, Cal enters December with a 7-5 overall record and a 4-5 showing in conference play, identical marks to 2018 pre-Cheez-It Bowl and numbers that aren’t too far off my initial prediction.
Where was I correct? Cal’s defense did take a couple of steps back in the turnover department.
Where was I wrong? The growth of an offense that suddenly appears formidable in the clutch, if not dominant.
As much as I hate utilizing asterisks in sports (because injuries do happen), I’m OK with using one here. The Bears went 5-0 when receiver Kekoa Crawford played and 6-0 when quarterback Chase Garbers started and finished the games he was fully healthy for.
That’s no joke. And while the Bears’ 7-5, 4-5 record isn’t an “improvement” upon last season’s, it was good enough to guarantee a tie for second place in the Pac-12 North, whereas the 2018 mark finished fifth. Baby steps?
There’s also this: The 2018-19 Cal teams are the first in program history to defeat USC, Stanford and UCLA on the road in a two-year span since 1949-50. I’m not sure if former U.S. president Harry Truman was a Cal fan, but if he was, he surely was checking out the Bears from the comfort of the West Wing theater back then.
It’s easy to exaggerate the importance of the quarterback position. I’ve always been one to place significant value on the left tackle (for a right-handed quarterback) and safety positions as arguably the two most valuable positions on a football field.
But to understate the value of Garbers’ development would be a disservice, especially with two years of college eligibility remaining. His value gains even more traction when you consider that Cal’s starting quarterback from this season is almost certainly the lone Pac-12 North starter returning to his program in 2020.
So what’s my “2020” vision? How about nine wins, a shot at the Pac-12 title game and a legitimate chance to end the year with four losses or less for the first time since 2008? I’m not about to shed my pessimistic label right away, but after seeing an offense eclipse more than 400 total yards in wins over Stanford and UCLA, I don’t expect a significant drop-off next season — with or without offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin returning to his position.
There are two improbable things that I’m becoming more and more confident will occur in the year 2020: I graduate from UC Berkeley and the Bears end up on cloud nine (wins). When you consider the ramifications of quarterback turnover in the conference, the upward trajectory of running back Christopher Brown Jr. and the importance of Garbers’ experience, it’s easy to see why — at least on paper — Cal could have something special in the works next fall.
A win in the Holiday, Redbox or Las Vegas Bowl would be the first postseason victory in the Justin Wilcox era and the perfect transition to checking the next box on Wilcox’s bucket list: winning the Pac-12 North. While the departure of Weaver, receiver Jordan Duncan and multiple playmakers in the secondary will force others to step up, the fact that Cal’s defense and widely criticized offense have finally clicked at the same time leaves little doubt that the Bears will at least go bowling again in 2020.
The biggest reason to believe that? Look no further than what Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth alluded to when Garbers scored the go-ahead score against Stanford two weeks ago: Numbers aside, the guy knows how to win.
“This is what you grow up dreaming about in the backyard,” Roth said. “Two-minute drill, can you lead your team, can you run, can you score? On the biggest stage, in the biggest game of your life, in a season where he’s been injured, he’s been banged up, he’s been criticized and now he answers the biggest call of his young career.”