Cal: Pain now, gain in 2014?

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
5:30
PM ET
Let's get this out of the way: California is awful. There is not even a misleading statistic we can massage to suggest Cal is not.

The Bears rank last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense and scoring defense, with an average margin of defeat of 23.2. They have no wins over FBS teams, much less a Pac-12 team. Colorado was winless in conference play before it dispatched the Bears by 17 points last weekend.

On Saturday, Stanford is going to crush the Bears like a bug in the Big Game. The Bears are a Big Game-record 31-point underdogs.

[+] EnlargeJared Goff
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesFreshman QB Jared Goff has been a bright spot for Cal this season.
It's fair to say this team is every bit as abysmal as Tom Holmoe's final team in 2001, which went 1-10, beating Rutgers on the final week. That squad had an average margin of defeat of 24 points.

And therein, almost perversely, lies where we're going to offer up a ray of hope.

As Cal fans know, the once-celebrated Jeff Tedford took over for Holmoe and immediately transformed the Bears, who went 7-5 in 2002. Tedford deserves credit for leading a woeful program out of the abyss -- in 2004 Cal was a national title contender -- but it's worth noting he inherited a heck of a team.

As in: QB Kyle Boller, CB Nnamdi Ashomugha, RB Joe Igber, DE Tully Banta-Cain, DT Lorenzo Alexander, OG Scott Tercero and WR Geoff McArthur, among others.

While it's well premature to suggest we're going all pollyanna on the Bears prospects being similar in 2014 in year two under Sonny Dykes, a case can be made for a strong turnaround, at least based on a lot of players coming back from the team's two depth charts.

Two depth charts? Yes, Cal has two depth charts: The one from the spring that Dykes expected to send out onto the field, and the one that will play against Stanford. They look almost nothing alike, particularly on defense.

"Cal has 13 players who have started or were projected starters prior to the season who are out for the season or have missed multiple games due to injury," notes the the school's official football release, and five others have missed at least one game with injury. Three other players from the spring depth chart, DE Gabe King, OLB/DE Chris McCain and LB David Wilkerson, left the program.

Every single starting offensive player on the depth chart for the Stanford game is projected to return in 2014. Nine will be back on defense. If you then revert to the spring depth chart, you add in six other players. And not just any players. Guys such as DE Brennan Scarlett, DT Mustafa Jalil, LB Nick Forbes, CB Stefan McClure and SS Avery Sebastian.

You'll notice that nearly all of those injured are defensive players, which makes for one of Dykes' postseason quandaries: Does he bring back defensive coordinator Andy Buh? That will be Dykes' first tough call as the Bears' coach.

California has allowed 79 plays of 20 yards or longer, most in the FBS. Youth is a major cause of that, but poor tackling and missed assignments tend to get traced back to coaches, too.

The offense hasn't been great shakes either. For one, the offense has been incredibly inefficient. It averages 460 yards per game but scores only 23.9 points per game. Stanford averages 383 yards per game and scores 30.4 points per game. Cal is last in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, and the 33 sacks it has yielded are five more than anyone else (Cal has played 11 games compared to 10 for every other Pac-12 team).

The to-do list for the offseason is lengthy. It starts with conditioning.

"We've got to get bigger and stronger," Dykes said. "We're playing with so many young players now. Guys physically probably aren't ready to play. We've got to get mentally tougher. Obviously, we've got work on our fundamentals a lot."

But, believe it or not, there are reasons for optimism. True freshman QB Jared Goff is a promising player, and there's impressive young talent at the offensive skill positions. If all the aforementioned guys return on defense, the improvement next fall could be exponential.

"We think we have the makings of a good team," Dykes said. "It's going to be a process to get to that point, as young as we are. The good thing is we're going to get a lot of guys back off of injury, guys who will be substantial contributors, starters, as we move into spring football."

Of course, there has been a lot of "Just wait until next year!" around Cal football for a few years. More than a few fans have questioned Dykes. They see Mike MacIntyre, who was just down the freeway at San Jose State last year, taking a Colorado program that was far lower than Cal in 2012 and moving it past the Bears in the Pac-12 pecking order in his first year, in large part because his team is playing with hunger.

Dykes understands the sentiments.

"There's not much you can say really," he said. "If you've watched us play on Saturday, you're not going to be real encouraged up to this point. But there are a lot of good things going on in the locker room."

He then added, "Building a program is building a program. It doesn't happen overnight."

But if you want to be optimistic, then expect the Bears to take a big step forward in 2014.

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