Saturday Out West Crystal Ball: Predicting every Cal football game for 2022
Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: Cal.
The only way to describe Cal’s performance the past five seasons under Justin Wilcox: average.
The Bears are 26-28 in his tenure, with the high mark coming in 2019 with an 8-5 season. The past two years, though, Cal is 6-10 and 5-8 in conference play.
And with a passing game in flux and some big losses on the defensive side, things don’t appear to be getting much better. The Bears need an infusion of talent if they’re going to emerge from the dreaded middle.
Consider this: Last year, Cal ranked between 5th and 8th in 36 team categories. Not good, not bad. Simply … average.
Here’s a look at what Cal will have to do to bump into the above-average category … or to avoid falling into the below-average area.
Does Cal have any home-run hitters this year?
The Bears sorely lacked star power last year, and it was reflected on the scoreboard. Cal topped 40 points twice — versus Sacramento State and at Stanford — but only topped 25 points in two other games.
The Bears need some offensive star power to emerge, and that’s not exactly foreign to them. We all remember Jahvid Best? Marshawn Lynch? Keenan Allen?
Returning starting running back Damien Moore hasn’t exactly flashed. He’ll need to drastically improve his production, as will a receiving corps that loses top targets Trevon Clark and Kekoa Crawford.
Can the Bears shore up the red-zone offense?
With a seasoned quarterback in Chase Garbers, Cal nonetheless struggled mightily in the red zone last year, finishing 11th in the Pac-12 in red-zone offense with 32 scores (24 touchdowns, eight field goals) in 41 opportunities.
Can Jack Plummer solve the problem? Purdue, his previous stop, finished fourth in the Big Ten in red-zone offense last year. Where does it start? How about getting into the red zone more often. The Bears’ 41 visits ranked eighth in the conference.
Who replaces Cameron Goode?
The hard-hitting linebacker, who led Cal with 7.5 of the team’s 24 sacks, is now with the Miami Dolphins. Goode’s .68 sacks per game tied Utah’s Mika Tafua for the league lead, and he really came on toward the end of the season. Goode had five sacks in the last five weeks of the season as Cal finished 3-2 last year.
Gone, too, is the Bears’ second-leading sack man, Luc Bequette. Finding a pass rush will be priority No. 1 for the defense.
Week 1: vs. UC Davis (W)
The Bears get an easy opener with their UC-system partners, the FCS-level Aggies. This is a rematch of 2019, when Cal won 27-13 to set up a 4-0 start that included wins over No. 14 Washington and Ole Miss. Can Cal build some momentum heading into a big matchup at Notre Dame …
Week 2: vs. UNLV (W)
It helps that they get the Rebels in Week 2 as a tune-up. UNLV went 2-10 last season and the Bears are better all over the field. An interesting note: This is their first matchup.
Week 3: at Notre Dame (L)
Cal is a bit more familiar with Notre Dame, but not in a good way. The teams haven’t met since 1967, the last of four Fighting Irish wins in an eight-year period. Those four games are the entirety of the series, and the Bears have yet to score in double-figures against mighty Notre Dame.
This time around, Cal gets the Irish two weeks removed from a massive season-opener against the Ohio State Buckeyes, a matchup of the No. 5 (ND) and No. 2 (OSU) teams in the nation. If the Buckeyes leave some lasting bruises — and if Marshall can inflict a nick or two the next week — then the Bears might be catching Notre Dame at a bad time.
Based strictly on talent, though, this one isn’t close. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Cal only a 5.9% chance to win.
Week 4: vs. Arizona (L)
Arizona’s infusion of talent in the offseason, combined with Cal’s drastic loss of production on both sides of the ball, tilts this one in Arizona’s favor. We saw what happened when the Bears were down some players last year, as COVID-19-plagued Cal lost to the Wildcats, 10-3, last year, Arizona’s lone win of the season.
With the Wildcats adding reigning Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year Jayden de Laura and UTEP’s dynamic wideout Jacob Cowing to the offense, a higher-scoring game is in order.
Week 5: at Washington State (L)
This game is very close on paper — ESPN’s FPI only favors Wazzu at home, 55.5% to 44.5% — but I’m pegging Washington State to be on more of an emotional high coming off a big home game against Oregon. The teams have traded wins over the past five years, but the Cougars will be looking to build some momentum and will have puffed chests after dominating Cal last year in a 21-6 win, when the Bears did not score after their first drive.
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: at Colorado (L)
The schedule pays Cal no favors this year, especially with their most winnable conference game coming off a bye. With Washington and Oregon looming and the game returning to Boulder, I’m not particularly bullish on Cal in this one. The Bears have a talent advantage, but Colorado has pulled off some sneaky upsets in the past. Here’s another one.
Week 8: vs. Washington (W)
Fresh off a disappointing road loss at winnable Colorado, the Bears embark on one of the toughest conference stretches in the country. Washington, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA in five weeks? Ouch. Luckily Cal brought in reinforcements for such a gauntlet.
It’s not as if one player can change the fate of an entire game, but Jackson Sirmon leaving Washington to play for Cal, where his father Peter serves as defensive coordinator, makes this a game to watch. In last year’s game, Sirmon and Cameron Williams forced a Damien Moore fumble at the goal line in overtime to help the Huskies eke out a 31-24 win.
Sirmons was a big addition to the Cal defense, which desperately needed some impact players. With Daniel Scott, one of the conference’s top safeties, back in the fold, the Bears will shut down the Washington passing game.
Week 9: vs. Oregon (W)
The Bears have been really good in the second games of back-to-back home dates over the last couple of years. Last year, Cal beat a good Oregon State team at Memorial Stadium in convincing fashion, 39-25, one week after giving Colorado some home cooking in a 26-3 win. In 2020, one week after losing their third straight game — a 24-23 home heartbreaker to Stanford — the Bears shocked Oregon at Memorial, 21-17. Now Cal gets Oregon at home one week after hosting the Huskies. The Ducks, meanwhile, will be coming off an emotional high against UCLA. Look, Cal did it before. Why not do it again?
Week 10: at USC (L)
Can Cal do the unthinkable and knock off USC for a second straight year and the third time in four years? After USC won 13 straight from 2004-17, the Bears finally have some bravado in this matchup. But a third straight upset win in three weeks would be a bit too much for a Cal team that doesn’t have abundant talent.
Of course, USC still has the star power in this matchup. But the Trojans outplayed Cal last season and still lost. I’m thinking Lincoln Riley is a little better of a game organizer, though.
Week 11: at Oregon State (L)
I’m not expecting things to play out like they did last season against the Beavers, when Cal forced a BJ Baylor fumble on Oregon State’s first carry, then scored less than three minutes into the game. No one can predict such a fluke, and it’s little surprise the Beavers’ game plan went awry the rest of the game. In a key home game for Oregon State, their passing game will reign supreme.
Week 12: vs. Stanford (L)
After racking up a 41-11 win over Stanford last year — its biggest win in the historical rivalry since 2004 — Cal comes into this game reeling after back-to-back losses. After knocking off Washington and Oregon in grand fashion, the Bears thought they’d be playing for something big by this time.
Instead, Stanford helps serve as spoiler. If Tanner McKee is healthy and operating, this won’t be particularly close, either.
Week 13: vs. UCLA (L)
The Bears have been a thorn in UCLA’s side at times, but this time, the Bruins will be looking to close out a 10-win season for the first time in more than a half-decade. UCLA won last year, 42-14, and the Bruins will have too much to play for with a Pac-12 title game berth potentially on the line.
2022 Projection: 4-8 (2-7)
Cal is desperately trying to move out of college football’s middle class, but its 2022 season will prove to be a step back. A truly tough six-week stretch will ultimately doom the Bears’ postseason chances, which will call Justin Wilcox’s power into question. Changes might have to be made for Wilcox to keep the gig. Something clearly isn’t working.
Even an impressive two-game run over Washington and Oregon might not be enough to protect Wilcox’s gig.