In each of the last three seasons, Cal has ranked higher in Bill Connelly’s preseason SP+ model than it has in the final SP+ rankings of the year.

In 2021, there was a 15-spot difference between the Golden Bears’ pre- and postseason rankings (53rd down to 68th). In 2020, there was a 35-spot difference. In 2019, there was a 10-spot difference; and, yes, that was the year Cal went 8-5. The Golden Bears were viewed as a team two points better than the average in the preseason and 2.6 points worse than the average in the postseason. SP+ never bought into head coach Justin Wilcox’s best season to date, and maybe you can sort of validate that belief with the 6-10 record Cal has produced since then.

The 2018 season (7-6) is the only time the Golden Bears have closed a season in the top half of SP+ rankings under Wilcox. (They ended 56th that season.)

To be clear: SP+ is one model in a sea of many. It has its flaws. There’s going to be variance from model to model, sometimes significant variance. This particular ranking hasn’t been used to push an agenda, only because it’s one I trust more than most and it highlights the key piece here about discussing the Golden Bears:

This is a very hard program to evaluate.

During Wilcox’s tenure, Cal is 26-28. But this offseason he saw his contract extended. Wilcox has a tremendous deal of institutional support at the moment. If you feel like your program is trending the wrong way, you don’t turn away Oregon—Wilcox’s hometown and alma mater.

Cal has entered every season hovering around the 60s in preseason SP+ rankings. So even when viewed just on potential, it’s a middle-of-the-pack place. Hard to recruit to? Hard to retain talent in today’s climate? There’s plenty of material for a thinkpiece on why Cal and Wilcox have worked the way they have.

Last season featured a troubling start (1-5) but then a promising close (4-2). Aside from a 42-14 loss to UCLA, Cal was close in every contest it lost. Five of the seven losses came by seven points or less. And it followed up the lopsided loss with a 10-point win over USC in December. To turn around and win a makeup game that, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t mean much would point to a team that believes in what Wilcox and his staff are selling.

So where should we place expectations for 2022? SP+ has Cal sitting at… 74th.

That equals a team that’s just about average (0.2 points better). Is that 6-6? With some more luck, which Cal might get—Cal was 1.5 games below its expected win total in 2021—does that get you back into the seven, eight-win range? Or will all that Cal needs to replace make for an uneven open to the season and drop the Bears right back into a “claw your way out” kind of situation it found itself in last season?

If the record isn’t a winning one, is Wilcox’s position still stable because he’s a “Cal guy” or do we start asking questions about the head coaching chair?

Who’s playing quarterback? Who’s that quarterback throwing to? Who’s going to be the difference-making player on defense?

There are lots and lots and lots of questions with this Cal team. This will likely be an eventful spring and summer.

What worked in 2021

Behind Chris Brooks, Damien Moore, and Chase Garbers, Cal had three players who earned at least 100 rushing attempts in 2021. That trio combined to produce 1,586 yards at 5 yards a carry.

This was a good rushing attack, finishing 33rd nationally in yards per carry (4.9). Not great, and not overly leaned on (which was interesting), but it was effective for Cal in moments.

In Year 2 under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, there weren’t a ton of holes in what they tried to do. The offensive line fared well but stopped short of bullying opposing defenses. The backs hit for decent yardage at a decent rate but weren’t overly explosive. Cal beat up on bad defenses and was a little less productive against the better defenses. But, hey, that’s what a team is supposed to do, isn’t it? Beat up the bad teams so you have a better margin against the good teams.

The offensive line was strong in various aspects of the run game. They did well to limit negative plays, allowing a stuff rate of only 12.2% (the 13th-best mark in the country) and tackles for loss on just 7.9% of plays (11th-best). It was seventh nationally in line yards gained per carry (a Football Outsiders number that tracks yards opened up by the offensive line).

Having a quarterback in Garbers that can move the ball with his arm or his legs helps everything. Only three quarterbacks in the league averaged more carries a game than Garbers did last season. And that ability makes your play-action game all the more potentially dangerous. Roll your quarterback and things get a bit easier for you. How that offensive identity shifts with a new, less-mobile quarterback will be key to watch.

What didn’t work in 2021

The front seven has work to do next season.

The Golden Bears ranked 87th nationally in havoc rate produced, 91st in line yards allowed per carry, 109th in stuff rate, and 120th in power success rate allowed.

Cal allowed opposing offenses to convert 46.4% of third downs faced, a mark that ranked 120th nationally. The Golden Bears just didn’t put teams in negative spots often enough.

There was a good deal of 2-4-5 happening with the defense, something that would seemingly point to a coaching staff more confident in the secondary than it is in the front of the defense. It was a secondary worth trusting, one that was good at taking the ball away and getting hands on pass attempts, but good defenses are complementary.

What’s coming back

Only one team in the league has less coming back next season than Cal. The Bears, according to SP+, return 55% of their production, a mark that would rank 114th nationally.

On offense, Cal needs to replace Garbers at quarterback; Brooks and Marcel Dancy at running back; Kekoa Crawford, Trevon Clark, and Nikko Remigio at wideout; and then Jake Tonges, Collin Moore, and Gavin Reinwald at tight end. That’s all of your passing production, 65% of your rushing production, and 75% of your receiving production.

Garbers threw for 2,525 yards and 16 scores last season. He completed 64% of his throws and was picked off only eight times. He graded out as the fifth-best quarterback in the league, per PFF. Only three guys had more big-time throws than Garbers did. In short: Garbers had his hand in most of what was good about the Cal offense.

The frontrunner to replace him is Jack Plummer, the mid-year Purdue transfer who started 13 games over three seasons in Indiana. He threw for a combined 3,405 yards with 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but was never much of a running threat. Sophomore Zach Johnson and freshman Kai Millner should also get looks in spring ball.

Jeremiah Hunter (388 yards on 21 catches) is the leading returning receiver. He and Moore are the only guys coming back from last season’s team who had at least 10 catches. There will be plenty of opportunity this spring and summer for young guys to work their way into roles.

On defense, seven of Cal’s top 11 tacklers from last season have left the program either via graduation or transfer. That includes key defensive backs Elijah Hicks and Josh Drayden, outside linebacker Cameron Goode, inside ‘backer Evan Tattersall, and defensive linemen Luc Bequette.

Fortunately, there are reinforcements coming. Washington linebacker Jackson Sirmon and Utah defensive lineman Xavier Carlton joined the program this offseason from the transfer portal and both should be expected to play key roles in the defense next season. Cal should also be getting back the 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive lineman Brett Johnson.

Johnson missed all of 2021 after a car accident forced him to have hip surgery. He was a PFF Freshman All-American in 2019 and the team’s third-leading tackler in 2020.

That trio, along with super-senior safety Daniel Scott (team-leading 82 tackles in 2021) and inside linebacker Muelu Iosefa, should be leaders along the defense next season.

What’s on the schedule

  • vs. UC Davis (Sept. 3)
  • vs. UNLV (Sept. 10)
  • at Notre Dame (Sept. 17)
  • vs. Arizona (Sept. 24)
  • at Washington State (Oct. 1)
  • at Colorado (Oct. 15)
  • vs. Washington (Oct. 22)
  • vs. Oregon (Oct. 29)
  • at USC (Nov. 5)
  • at Oregon State (Nov. 12)
  • vs. Stanford (Nov. 19)
  • vs. UCLA (Nov. 25)

The preview series so far has hit: 

The schedule going forward:

  • Arizona (Wednesday, March 9)
  • Colorado (Sunday, March 13)
  • Washington (Wednesday, March 16)
  • Stanford (Sunday, March 20)