Seven points. Five interceptions thrown. One loss.
Almost exactly a year after possibly the most embarrassing bowl game of all time — although many neutral viewers considered it one of the most entertaining games ever because of the pure offensive atrocity on the field — Cal will finally get its chance at redemption.
Although the eye test suggests that head coach Justin Wilcox’s program has improved every year of his tenure, on paper, the 2019 regular season has been the same as the 2018 season. Both teams were 7-5 heading into the bowl game, meaning that Cal must win its matchup against Illinois to continue its improvement in the record department.
Obviously, there have been some marquee wins that highlight the upward trend of the program — namely upset victories over Washington and Stanford — but Wilcox has yet to win a postseason game with the Bears. To prove to the Pac-12 that Cal is going to be a force over the next few years, Wilcox needs to win games when they count — and there’s no better opportunity to prove this than at the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 30.
But perhaps even more hungry is the group of seniors who have been cornerstones in establishing Cal’s culture as a gritty, defensive-minded program. When you have safety Ashtyn Davis and linebacker Evan Weaver, both of whom are among the best in the nation at their respective positions, you should be able to win a mid-tier bowl game. Add on other draft-eligible stars like safety Jaylinn Hawkins and cornerback Camryn Bynum, and the Bears should have a team that absolutely has the ability to reach eight wins.
I’d put down a hefty bet that the Cal defense will show up — they usually do, plus I don’t think Weaver would allow anything less in his final game donning the blue and gold. With at least half a dozen NFL prospects on the roster, Cal should be in a position to send the senior class out with their first bowl game win, but the defense won’t be able to do it alone.
There is a bit of an asterisk on this season’s record, as Cal went 6-0 when quarterback Chase Garbers played a full game, while going an abysmal 1-5 when he missed parts of or the entire game because of injury. With Garbers at the helm for the entire season, it’s quite likely the Bears would be playing in a more prestigious bowl game — but injuries are always a part of football, and now all that matters is if he can lead the team to a win in its final game.
After getting benched in the Cheez-It Bowl last season, Garbers is undoubtedly on the hunt for redemption himself. Additionally, this will be offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin’s last time partnered with the quarterback, having accepted a job as the next head coach at Cal Poly. After Cal’s offensive crumbling in the Cheez-It Bowl, many were calling for his head, meaning the Redbox Bowl will also give Baldwin a final chance to leave Cal fans with a less sour taste in their mouths. It won’t take much for the Bears to top the seven points they put up against TCU a year ago, but the offense will need to be in sync for a majority of the game to come out with the win.
Even though Cal has made some impressive strides this season, it will feel eerily similar to last if the team doesn’t leave Levi’s Stadium with a trophy. The program hasn’t won a bowl game since the Jeff Tedford-led team won the Armed Forces Bowl in 2015, so failing to win the Redbox Bowl will serve as yet another sign that this team is trapped in perpetual mediocrity.