Every team, with few exceptions, will have its ugly games.
Ohio State wasn’t immune last season, losing to Virginia Tech in Week 2. The Buckeyes went on to win the inaugural College Football Championship. Same goes for Oregon, which snuck past Washington State in Week 3 by a touchdown. The Ducks went on to become the national runners-up. Florida State’s entire season, essentially, was comprised of ugly games. The Seminoles were the ACC’s representative in the College Football Playoff. Alabama barely beat Arkansas. The Tide entered the playoff as the favorites to win it all.
You see where this is going: These games are inevitable. When the end of the season rolls around, its often the teams who survived their ugly games who finish among the top-ranked in the country. Cal, again, found a way to do that on Saturday, barely edging Washington State, 34-28.
In a way, Cal bears more than a passing resemblance to Florida State circa 2014. The Bears are undefeated and ranked, yet could just as easily be 2-3 and well on their way to another unremarkable season. It’s not much unlike Florida State, which could have been .500 on the year though wound up among the country’s top four teams.
Cal beat Texas on a missed extra point in Week 2. Then the Bears slipped by Washington in one of the worst games in quarterback Jared Goff’s collegiate career. And now, for the third week in a row, they found a way to just do enough to mark another tally on the left side of the ledger.
It begs the question: Is this luck we’re seeing on Cal’s side, or are the Bears a legitimately good football team with a bona fide shot at a Pac-12 title?
They started painfully slow, allowing Wazzou to stake itself to a 21-7 lead. Here are just a few things that happened from there: Cal recovered an onside kick, Goff threw two touchdowns in less than two minutes, Wazzou tried a fake punt and failed in spectacular fashion as it ended in a Cal touchdown, and Goff threw a touchdown late in the fourth quarter that gave the Bears their first lead of the game.
If Cal is to consider itself a contender of any kind, it cannot rely on sequences like that to beat a perennial doormat. Its win over Texas looks even more unconvincing than it did after the Longhorns were stomped up and down by TCU, which means the Bears’ best win to date is…Washington? By six?
There are currently six teams with one loss who are ranked ahead of Cal, and for good reason. The Bears have not played anybody, which isn’t entirely their fault. But the manner in which they have played a largely subpar schedule is. There is no reason Wazzou, or Washington, or Texas should have been within a score of the Bears if they wish to make a case for themselves. Ugly games happen, but Cal can’t afford to keep winning like this the same as Florida State did, for Cal is not in the wake of a national championship, nor is it being led by a Heisman-winning quarterback.
The Bears need convincing wins, and bad. Problem is, they whiffed on three straight chances to make a statement, and now they have to do so against the likes of Utah, UCLA, USC and Oregon, all of whom await in consecutive weeks.
There is reason for optimism, yes. Coach Sonny Dykes managed to win just six games in his first two years as head coach. He’s now one away from matching that mark in a single season, which would also grant bowl eligibility to a team that hasn’t been eligible since 2011. This 5-0 start is the Bears’ finest since 1950, which is no short amount of time.
With the Pac-12’s four giants looming ahead, though, there is no more room left for ugly games. For Cal to be taken seriously, now is the time to make those wins look good.