Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: Cal.

Already covered: Arizona, Arizona State

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Justin Wilcox’s seat is certainly getting a bit toasty, as the Bears have regressed over the past 3 years. After peaking at 8-5 in 2019, Cal is just 10-18 this decade, and even worse, the Bears are the most dreaded word in college football: boring.

Jack Plummer was a bust at quarterback last year, but his replacement, former TCU backup Sam Jackson IV, doesn’t look much better. He’ll need to take a massive step in the fall for Cal to show any progress. Wilcox overhauled the offensive coaching staff to that order, going with a familiar face — former Bears offensive coordinator Jake Spavital — to get things back on track.

Ultimately, it’s going to come down to close games. The Bears lost 5 games by 1 possession last year. That can’t happen again if Wilcox wants to keep his gig.

Will the Bears highlight their best offensive player, Jaydn Ott?

When a true freshman breaks off a 100-yard game in his debut, it sounds an alarm across the conference. When the same freshman goes off for 274 yards in just his 4th game, the whole college football world takes notice.

And that’s what happened when Ott dominated Arizona to the tune of a 14.4-yard per carry with 3 touchdowns, including a 73-yarder. Cal, at 3-1, had found its future.

And then … crickets. Ott never topped 100 yards again, maxing out at 97 yards in the Big Game against Stanford. He also never got 19 carries again. Part of that was Ott’s doing — he finished with under 3 yards per carry in 4 other games — and part of it was Wilcox never treating like the bell cow.

It’s not too big a surprise that after a 3-1 start, Cal finished 1-7 and ranked bottom in the league in rushing.

Does Jackson Sirmon have any help?

Cal returns 78% of its defensive production this year. Only problem is Cal wasn’t very good on defense last year, so that may not be a good thing. The most productive returning Bear is linebacker Jackson Sirmon, the Bears’ lone preseason first-team all-conference pick.

Sirmon had 104 total tackles last year, 3rd in the Pac-12, and second-team preseason pick Craig Woodson had 75, but no other returning Bear had more than 35. They’re going to need some help.

Can Cal clean up the pass defense?

Quarterbacks rained all over the Bears’ defense last year, averaging 279.50 passing yards, the most in the conference. During a 6-game midseason slide, the Bears allowed 1,895 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air.

The problem is Cal loses its top defensive back in former safety Daniel Scott, while introducing 3 new impact transfers. In comes SDSU’s Patrick McMorris, UNLV’s Nohl Williams and Citrus College’s Matthew Littlejohn.

Are they the answers? Well, it can’t get much worse than last year.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at North Texas (W)

The Mean Green have gone bowling in 6 of the past 7 seasons, yet the Bears are favored almost double-digits. Feels like a trap, especially with Cal’s passing game a question mark. I’m going with Cal, but I don’t feel good about it.

Week 2: vs. Auburn (L)

Cal maintains a slight edge in ESPN’s Football Power Index predictions, but new Auburn coach Hugh Freeze might have something to say about that. The Tigers haven’t found their footing since 2019 after a disastrous run under Bryan Harsin, culminating in the program’s worst season since 2012. Cal last played (and beat) an SEC team in 2019, winning at Ole Miss, 28-20.

Week 3: vs. Idaho (W)

One of the worst Pac-12 nonconference games on the schedule, Cal should have little troubles against the Vandals. If the Bears do hibernate through this one, Wilcox deserves his walking papers.

Week 4: at Washington (L)

After Washington walloped Cal in 2016 and 2017, this series has been close the past 4 matchups. The Huskies have won 2 straight after the Bears won 2 in a row, and all 4 games were decided by 1 score. UDub won last year, 28-21, as Cal got 2 touchdown receptions from J. Michael Sturdivant, who has since moved on to UCLA.

Unfortunately for the Bears, none of Washington’s top targets left, leaving Cal defenseless against the likes of Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk. Oh, yeah, and Michael Penix Jr. is back to throw them passes, too, after torching Cal for 374 yards and 2 TDs last year.

ESPN’s FPI is giving Cal just a 21.4% chance to win, and I think that’s high.

Week 5: vs. Arizona State (L)

The days of Cal dropping half-a-hundred on Arizona State might be over, and that should be devastating for Bears fans who are so used to feasting on Sparky. Cal won 8-of-9 from ASU from 2002-2011 but has dropped 3-of-4 since.

This year could be interesting, with the Wilcox Era winding down and the Dillingham Era just kicking off for the Sun Devils.

Week 6: vs. Oregon State (L)

ESPN’s FPI gives Cal a somewhat surprising 36.6% chance of beating the budding Beavers at home, even with Oregon State coming off its first 10-win season in more than a decade.

It is especially surprising because, while these teams are even at 6 wins each since 2011, these games aren’t often close. The past dozen matchups have offered 9 blowouts by 2 scores or more, including OSU’s 38-10 home win last year.

This one doesn’t feel particularly close.

Week 7: at Utah (L)

A century apart, Cal and Utah’s first game and last game could not have gone more differently. In their first matchup in 1920, Cal dealt Utah a 63-0 loss, one of the most embarrassing losses in Utes history.

Last year, Utah got a measure of revenge, shutting out the Bears 35-0 to even the lifetime series, 6-6.

The Utes are heavily favored to put a home whooping on Cal once more, as the FPI gives the Bears just a 12.6% chance to win.

Week 8: Bye

Week 9: vs. USC (L)

Cal somehow has better odds to beat USC at home than Utah on the road, though both look like hearty losses. That might be because Cal has played USC surprisingly close in recent years. After the Trojans won 14 straight from 2004-17, the Bears have won 2-of-4 against their legendary rivals to the south.

Last year in a down year, Cal played USC surprisingly close, scoring 21 4th-quarter points to make it a game. After falling behind 27-7 midway through the 3rd, the Bears rallied with 4 nice 2nd-half scoring drives of 73, 92, 52 and 85 yards. Alas, they could not complete the comeback.

They won’t slow down Caleb Williams and Co., this year, either.

Week 10: at Oregon (L)

Oregon State, Utah, USC and Oregon? Is that the toughest month-long stretch in the conference? The country? After 3 straight games with FPI odds below 16, following what feels like a blowout against Oregon State, I’d be surprised if the Bears are still standing.

Oregon might be the toughest of the 4, actually. The Ducks have won 12 of the past 14 matchups against Cal, including a 42-24 drubbing in Berkeley last year. And the games haven’t been particularly close, either — just 1 of Oregon’s past 10 wins has been by 1 score. Now the game shifts back to the brutal confines of Autzen Stadium, where Cal last won in 2007.

Week 11: vs. Washington State (L)

Finally, a reprieve. Cal is heavily favored in their matchup with the Cougars, but I’m not sure the Bears will be upright at this point.

Cal has traditionally owned the Cougars, with a 48-30 edge, but Wazzu turned it on in the Mike Leach era and has won 4-of-6, including a 28-9 win last year. In fact, WSU — which is not exactly known for it defense — has allowed an average of just over 9 points to the Bears in their past 5 wins.

Week 12: at Stanford (W)

With both team down in recent years, Cal has taken hold of the rivalry with a 3-1 run, including a 27-20 win in 2022 and a 41-11 win in 2021. That came after a decade of dominance for the Cardinal, who won 9 straight from 2010-18.

But now both teams have question marks at quarterback and defenses that need vast improvement. Cal is favored, but is either team, really?

For a Big Game, the stakes should be minimal.

Week 13: at UCLA (L)

The Bears close out their season with their dearly departing baby brothers to the south, and there will be no love lost between the sides.

From 1999-2010, Cal made some waves in this rivalry, winning 8-of-12 games with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch and Jahvid Best having their way. But UCLA has won 8 of the past 10, averaging more than 36 points in those 8 wins.

Unfortunately for Cal, they get Bruins freshman QB Dante Moore late in the season, when he should already have some seasoning.

2023 Projection: 3-9 (1-8)


Things are dire in Berkeley, both the short- and long-term future. Cal’s coffers are running light, so Wilcox might not officially on the chopping block, but his seat can’t feel too good.

He’ll need to pull off the best coaching job of his career to overcome all that ails the Bears. Giving new offensive coordinator Spavital some latitude to be creative with the offense would be a good start. Finishing games better would help, too.