BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) With just nine wins, no bowl games and two head coaches, it has been a trying three years for the senior class at California.
The seniors on the Golden Bears know they have one chance left to salvage a positive on the field before leaving school and they believe all the pieces are in place for that to happen.
The offense should be high-powered behind third-year starting quarterback Jared Goff and his deep group of receivers and running backs. The defense has no direction to go but up after allowing the most yards and second-most points in the nation since coach Sonny Dykes arrived in 2013.
The Bears are excited to show off all that progress this season, beginning with Saturday's season opener against lower-division Grambling State.
''This season means a great deal because we have struggled in the past,'' senior receiver Bryce Treggs said Tuesday. ''Last year we got pretty close to getting over the hump but didn't quite get there. This year is the year that we're finally going to put all the pieces together and have a great season.''
After going 3-9 in 2012 before Jeff Tedford was fired, the Bears went 1-11 in their first season under Dykes. They followed that up with a 5-7 record last year that included four losses by eight or fewer points.
But with another year in Dykes' system, an offense that brings back nearly every skill position player and a defense that is deeper, Cal is hoping to turn some of those close losses to wins and reach another level this season.
''It's about getting better and improving every day,'' Dykes said. ''Obviously an improvement for us would be getting to a bowl game and having a chance to compete for the conference championship. We want to make sure the games we play in late November and December are meaningful ball games. That's where you want to get to as a program.''
The opener shouldn't provide too stiff a test. Grambling State has lost all 13 games it has played against FBS teams since 1996, getting outscored by more than 34 points a game. The Tigers averaged less than eight points a game and have not scored more than 14 points against an FBS team since losing 42-22 to Houston in 2006.
The Bears have allowed at least 14 points in every game under Dykes, including 44 in two games against FCS teams. But they are counting on big improvement this year with an improved secondary led by cornerbacks Darius White and Darius Allensworth and a line anchored by Wake Forest transfer James Looney and Mustafa Jalil.
''It's all coming together now,'' linebacker Jalen Jefferson said. ''I'm excited about what we can do.''
There are few questions about what Cal is capable of offensively. Goff has put up staggering numbers in two years in the pass-happy system. He has completed 61.2 percent of his passes for 7,481 yards, 53 touchdowns and only 17 interceptions. He ranks in the top 10 in completions, yards and touchdown passes since starting college ball.
He has seven players who caught at least 20 passes last season, as well as a talented running back group led by Daniel Lasco at his disposal and says the goal is to score on every possession this year.
''If everybody does their job, I don't think there's a team that can really stop us,'' Treggs said. ''That's probably me being a little confident but that's what we believe. We believe if everyone goes out and does their job, then the sky is the limit for us.''