BERKELEY, CA — Cal football kicks off its seventh season under coach Justin Wilcox with low expectations but increasing pressure to win.
In the annual preseason media poll, the Bears were projected to finish ninth in the Pac-12 Conference, and few people outside of Memorial Stadium expect much more.
However, after three straight losing seasons — and 13 years without a winning conference record — the Bears should feel some urgency to change a stale script in the Pac-12’s final season as we know it.
“Every year, the expectations we have in our own building are extremely high, and it’s no different this year,” Wilcox said following the team’s first practice on Wednesday. “We are aware that the margins are razor thin. So everything we do… everything matters. Because, as we’ve seen, it can all come down to a single play.”
Cal lost five games by seven points or less last season, but the overall record was 4-8, including a ninth-place finish (2-7) in the Pac-12.
Wilcox’s contract extension expires in March 2022, but no Cal coach has had four consecutive losing seasons since Tom Holmoe, who was fired in 2001 after five sub-.500 seasons.
The Bears make their debut on September 2 against North Texas, followed by their home opener against Auburn on September 9 in a game televised by ESPN.
The noise surrounding the Pac-12’s future, according to Wilcox, cannot be ignored.
“That falls into the category of something that certainly matters, but we have no control over it,” Wilcox said. “I’m not denying the significance — it’s massively significant.” However, we have no control over this.
The following are five issues over which Wilcox and Cal have some say.
Can you tell me who the quarterback is?
This is the most important question for the Bears. Sam Jackson V, a TCU transfer, emerged as the likely starter after demonstrating potential as a two-way threat during spring ball.
However, Jackson was a rarely used third-stringer for Sonny Dykes’ national runner-up Horned Frogs, so there is little evidence of what he can do on Saturdays. With the post-spring arrival of transfer Ben Finley, a pocket quarterback who started two games in three seasons at North Carolina State and will get the chance to challenge Jackson for the No. 1 job, the Bears added some insurance.
How will the new offense be designed?
With Jake Spavital as coordinator, the Bears’ offense should look different regardless of which quarterback takes the first snaps at North Texas. Cal hopes to be more versatile and dynamic under Spavital after three seasons under Bill Musgrave, who ran a pro-style offense. Spavital previously spent one season in Berkeley as Dykes’ top offensive aide in 2016.
Spavital, who has coached ten NFL quarterbacks, wants to run a balanced offense that stretches defenses and creates open space for ball carriers or receivers. The Bears’ decision on who will run the offense will determine whether they add the dimension of a running quarterback to the mix.
The offensive line can’t get any worse, but can it get any better?
The offensive line, the Bears’ weak link in recent seasons, received an offseason boost when Matthew Cindric, a starter in 33 games at center or guard, chose to return for a sixth season. Barrett Miller, a fifth-year transfer who started 30 games at guard for Stanford, also arrived to help.
Both sacks allowed (31) and rushing yards per attempt (3.63) ranked Cal 10th in the conference. It will be up to new offensive line coach Mike Bloesch to develop a cohesive unit out of the 20 line candidates in camp.
Does Jaydn Ott have any assistance?
Ott rushed for 897 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman last season, including a career-high 274 yards and three touchdowns against Arizona. His 46 catches and 321 receiving yards were more than any of the seven freshmen who had more rushing yards nationally.
Ott’s success was most likely a factor in the offseason departure of other running backs, but Cal added experienced transfers Byron Cardwell of Oregon and Justin Williams-Thomas of Tennessee. Cardwell, who arrived after suffering a leg injury at Oregon, has been ruled out for the season, according to Wilcox. Williams-Thomas is also recovering from an injury and will return to practice once he is fully recovered.
Will Brett Johnson keep his promise?
Johnson, Cal’s best defensive lineman in 2020, missed the 2021 season after breaking his hip in a car accident and tearing his ACL in fall camp last year. The 6-foot-5, 295-pound redshirt junior was barred from practicing last spring and hasn’t played in a game in 32 months.
Johnson, a third-team freshman All-American in 2019, was expected to be drafted by the NFL after his sophomore season. “We want Brett to get up to speed,” Wilcox said. “He’s not going to be a guy who takes it easy.” But we have to be careful how we work with him this month.”