Three keys to Cal starting turnaround season with win at North Texas

Bears have new faces in many places on the roster, including starting quarterback Sam Jackson V

The big picture for Cal coach Justin Wilcox, whose program has had three straight losing seasons after three encouraging ones, is the same as the goal for Saturday’s opener at North Texas.

“Winning,” Wilcox replied when asked what constitutes a successful season. “I’m winning a lot.” Trying to win as many games as possible.

“We are confident in our team. We’ll have to keep improving because we’re not yet a finished product. It’s a fantastic opportunity for us to set the tone for the season and continue to try to raise it each week.”

The Bears will not arrive in Denton, Texas, distracted by the constant talk of conference realignment. Yes, the Pac-12 as we know it is dead, and Cal will be joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in a year.

The Bears should concentrate solely on North Texas on Saturday.

Cal is expected to win this game against a team that has a new coach, quarterback, and conference. The Bears, who finished 4-8 last season, are 6.5-point road favorites.

Despite a combined record of two games under.500, the Mean Green has played in three straight bowl games. They came back from a 20-0 deficit to lose 23-17 at Berkeley in 2019.

“They’re going to come out and play,” said Wilcox. “They have our full attention.”

Here are three factors that will determine Cal’s chances on Saturday:

— Will quarterback Sam Jackson V be nervous in his first start since Oct. 25, 2019?

That’s right, the TCU third-year sophomore transfer hasn’t played since the final game of his junior season at Naperville Central High School in suburban Chicago.

“It was a rough game,” Jackson said of the 66-21 loss to unbeaten East St. Louis, which became his prep season finale after the pandemic ended his senior year.

Jackson’s contract includes butterflies.

“I’m nervous about everything,” he admitted. “I know I’ll be nervous on Saturday.” But I’ll be ready to go after the first play because I came prepared. That feeling is replaced by preparation.

“I’m not scared or anything, just nervous because it’s been a while.”

Jake Spavital, the first-year offensive coordinator who will unveil his fast-paced version of the spread offense, believes in his quarterback.

“Sam’s the guy,” he explained. “He’s still a young man who hasn’t started a college game yet.” However, he has improved in recent practices. He’s becoming more at ease with the game plan.”

— Will the Bears be able to withstand the Texas heat?

The forecast for Saturday in Denton is 99 degrees with a side order of humidity. The Bears can’t replicate that in Berkeley, so they traveled to UC Davis for 95 degrees and some manufactured humidity last Saturday.

As many as 11 Cal players (along with three assistant coaches) are making the trip because they either grew up or played in Texas, so they are familiar with the weather.

“I’ve heard some North Texas players say we’re not going to be ready, and that gives them an advantage,” Jackson said. “I believe we’ll be ready.” The heat builds up quickly, but it’s all mental.”

To stay as fresh as possible, the Bears will hydrate and rotate their players.

“It’s going to be hot — we all know that,” Wilcox predicted. “We’re not going to make any excuses about the weather.”

— Will all of the new parts fit Cal?

While coach Eric Morris and quarterback Stone Earle will be making their North Texas debuts, the Bears have 49 newcomers on the roster.

“I think our ceiling has been raised,” Wilcox said of the level of talent. “But many of us haven’t played together. “You build chemistry in the offseason and during practices, but there’s no test like the game.”

“Week 1 is where we kind of see what we have,” Jackson explained. “I think we’re going to be pretty explosive… I think we’re going to shock some people.”

Safety Craig Woodson has witnessed this explosiveness in action. “I tell everybody, ‘Be ready for the show.'”

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