In 2020, Cal’s season-opening opponent changed five different times before the team finally kicked off in a frantically put-together game against UCLA. This time around, there will (hopefully) be a bit more certainty as to whom and when the Bears are going to play. After playing just one-third of a full season in 2020, Cal will revert to the normal 12-game slate in 2021, featuring the traditional three nonconference games and followed by nine Pac-12 opponents.
Obviously, there is plenty of potential for this schedule to change given COVID-19’s unpredictable nature, but the expectation right now is that all programs within the conference will have their players and staff vaccinated before fall camp. The number of fans that will be allowed to attend games is another story, but the Pac-12 should see far fewer game cancellations than it did last season — given that vaccinations are as effective as expected.
The Bears have yet to lose a regular-season nonconference game during head coach Justin Wilcox’s tenure, but their opponents in 2021 are not to be overlooked. Nevada heads to Memorial Stadium for the season opener behind the arm of talented quarterback Carson Strong, who led the Wolfpack to a 7-2 record in 2020. The following week, Cal travels down to Fort Worth, Texas for a rematch of the infamous 2018 Cheez-It Bowl against TCU before concluding pre-Pac-12 play against FCS opponent Sacramento State.
Conference play begins with a gauntlet of Pacific Northwest teams, starting with a trip to Seattle to take on Washington. The Huskies surprised last season by going 3-1 behind their signature stout defense, but a Bears’ win would make it three consecutive victories over Washington. In week five, Cal will host Washington State, who enters 2021 with mediocre expectations. The Bears’ 2020 matchups against both Washington and Washington State were canceled, and both will have new head coaches since the last time they faced Cal.
A much-needed bye week will follow before the blue and gold’s marquee matchup against perennial conference powerhouse Oregon. The Bears toppled the eventual 2020 Pac-12 champions this past season, but the Ducks are again expected to fly atop the Pac-12 North in 2021. A surprise transfer from starting quarterback Tyler Shough leaves some questions at the position, but regardless, Oregon is loaded with talent, and Cal will have its hands in Autzen Stadium.
Next comes back-to-back home games against Colorado and Oregon State, followed by a trip down to Tucson to face Arizona. The Buffaloes shocked the conference by starting the 2020 season 4-0 before losing their final two games, while the Beavers will again try to gash the Bears’ defense again after notching their first win of last year’s season against Cal. The blue and gold will face a revamped Arizona team, who after going winless last year, brought on a new head coach in Jedd Fisch.
Cal will round out its regular season against the Pac-12’s other three California teams: USC, Stanford and UCLA. The Trojans’ trip to Berkeley could very well be the Bears’ toughest test of the season — star quarterback Kedon Slovis tore up a stout Cal secondary for 406 yards and four touchdowns in 2019 and will be looking to cement his status as a top prospect in the 2022 NFL draft.
The 124th edition of the Big Game will see the Bears (and, should health regulations permit, the Cal faithful, too) pay a visit to “The Farm” in Palo Alto as they try to reclaim the Axe. The blue and gold lost 2020’s battle in heartbreaking fashion, watching a game-tying extra point clank off the upright in the waning seconds of the game. The heated rivalry game, like always, should have nail-biter potential and perhaps even postseason implications.
In its final affair of the regular season, Cal will migrate south to Pasadena, aiming to avenge a 10-34 beat down at the hands of the Bruins in 2020’s season opener — a matchup that was patched together less than 48 hours before kickoff. Fans can only dream that the matchup will be the Bears’ first of two games in the Rose Bowl this season, but Cal will need to reign among the conference’s best for that to be the case.
Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].