The Golden Bears are coming off their second-straight losing season, but head coach Justin Wilcox is excited about the 2018 season because his team has experience on both sides of the ball. California returns a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher, three players with 45-plus catches and all five starters on the offensive line. Wilcox emphasized improvement and will no longer let his team settle for another 5-7 season. Getting to a bowl game will be the next jump for California.
Team strengths: Pass offense. Junior signal-caller Ross Bowers earned his way into the starting lineup last season and surprised everyone with how well he threw the ball, finishing with 3,039 yards, 18 pass touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He has big-play receivers to distribute the ball to in senior Vic Wharton III, and juniors Kanawai Noa and Jordan Duncan. The trio combined for 133 catches for 1,779 yards and 10 touchdowns. Even senior running back Patrick Laird got in on the action, catching 45 balls out of the backfield for 322 yards and a score. Bowers can feel at ease in the pocket knowing he has five returning offensive linemen, who combined for 72 career starts.
Team weaknesses: The defensive front seven. Cal returns seven starters on defense, but three return in the front seven, including one along the defensive line. The Golden Bears ranked 64th nationally in rush defense, but that number is bound to get worse in 2018 with all the inexperience along the defensive linemen and linebackers. Expect California to struggle against any opposing offense that has running backs with a pulse.
Players to watch: Running back Laird, wide receiver Warton III and linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk. Laird had 1,449 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns last season. He’s also a team captain on offense. Warton III is the teams’ leading returning receiver in yards, receptions and touchdowns. Kunaszyk is the defensive captain and teams’ leading returning tackler with 74 stops, including six from behind the line of scrimmage, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions.
The schedule: Favorable. California gets North Carolina, Oregon, UCLA, Washington, Stanford and Colorado at home. The only tough road game is at USC in November.
My take: California is trending up and has all the tools on offense to finally make it to a bowl game. With the way the schedule sets up, don’t be surprised if the Golden Bears squeak out eight wins.