Cal Football: How High Should the Ceiling Be For Unbeaten Golden Bears?
Justin Wilcox was 10 months old the last time Cal won on the road against a team that was representing the Southeastern Conference.
So, after the Bears’ 28-20 win at Ole Miss on Saturday, we can reasonably suggest that all preconceived notions about what is possible this season should be tweaked. Or perhaps scrapped entirely.
Long-time Cal fans have some bad memories about venturing into SEC territory. In particular, a 66-0 crushing at the hands of Alabama in 1973 is probably seared in the brains of some Old Blues.
Yes, Cal has beaten the likes of Texas A&M and Missouri on the road in decades past, but that was before either team was invited into the SEC. You have to go back to 1977 and a 27-17 win at Tennessee to find one that compares with this.
To be clear, Ole Miss is not a great team. The Rebels were picked to finish second-to-last in the SEC West.
Just as Cal was in the Pac-12 North.
Yep, the preseason conference poll had it this way: 1. Oregon; 2. Washington; 3. Stanford; 4. Washington State; 5. Cal; 6. Oregon State.
Not that we ever did, but do we still take that as gospel?
The Bears already have beaten Washington, on the road, no less, giving them a 1-0 start to Pac-12 play.
Here’s a look at the others rated higher than the Bears:
— Stanford has been an abject disappointment so far. Yes, the Cardinal has won the Big Game nine straight years, but it appears it will have little more than tradition on its side this time.
— Cal nearly upset a 10th-ranked Washington State team on the road last season before falling 19-13, and gets to face the Cougars at Berkeley, where two seasons ago it put together a stunning 37-3 upset victory. Wilcox seems to have a handle on how to defend Mike Leach’s offense.
— Certainly, Oregon will be difficult. The Bears play Friday at home against No. 24 Arizona State, but the more serious measuring stick of their potential will be in Eugene a week later.
UPDATED PAC-12 STANDINGS (Conference games):
Cal 1-0, Oregon 1-0, OSU 0-0, WSU 0-1, UW 0-1, Stanford 0-2
The Bears were far from perfect against Ole Miss. Their defense — playing without starting outside linebackers Cam Goode and Tevin Paul and top reserve Ben Hawk Schrider — gave up 525 yards, the most they’ve allowed in the past 20 games.
Cal was stout in the second and third quarters, but could not slow the Rebels in the first or fourth periods. Ole Miss was literally inches from potentially tying the game on the final play of the fourth quarter.
But freshmen linebacker Braxten Croteau and redshirt freshman Nick Alftin (who was working at tight end in practice two weeks ago), played hard in place of the regulars.
The Bears hope the frontline group returns soon, but linebacker Evan Weaver said Cal’s approach to preparation won’t change.
“Take little steps every single week and get one percent better,” said Weaver, whose 22 tackles helped the defense extend its streak to 11 straight games allowing fewer than 24 points.
The offense improved more than one percent — more like 100 percent —thanks to a career performance by quarterback Chase Garbers, who had 357 yards and four touchdowns.
Can he do that again? Can he be even better?
Did anyone foresee tight end Jake Tonges catching a 60-yard touchdown pass?
Who knows, but Garbers and the offense didn’t have all their weapons, either. Running back Christopher Brown Jr., banged up the past two weeks, had just one carry in the first half. Offensive lineman Valentino Daltoso sat out for a second straight week.
Wilcox sees nothing but upside.
“Coming down here and playing in this type of environment against talent like that, I feel real excited for our team,” he said. “We know where we can improve — we’ve still got a lot of room for improvement — but I love the way they competed.”