Most bowl seasons, there is at least one team left to prepare under a lame-duck coaching staff. The result is a predictable lackluster effort that stinks up a bowl game.
Cal could well have been that team in 2015. Head coach Sonny Dykes was rumored in association with various vacancies, most notably the Virginia gig Bronco Mendenhall left BYU for. His seemingly imminent departure was fodder for national media much of the 2015 season.
@jpease1223 He wants out.
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) November 1, 2015
Dykes and Cal athletic brass coming to terms on a contract extension earlier this month is the good faith gesture the Golden Bears football program needs to continue its positive trajectory. The Armed Forces Bowl marks Cal’s first postseason appearance since 2011, earned in a season that displayed glimpses of the program’s potential.
The Golden Bears broke into the Top 25 midway through the campaign, though they hit struggles late in the season. Of no coincidence, their backslide aligned with the growing rumblings of unrest between Dykes and the athletic department.
A 7-5 regular season isn’t necessarily eye-popping. However, given some of the Golden Bears’ wins — at Washington, over likely Top 25 finisher Washington State — Cal showed the potential to be a player in the crowded Pac-12 North.
The flourish with which Cal finished the regular season — rallying from down 21 points to beat Arizona State, 48-46 — can be emblematic of the program’s continued progress. A win over Air Force to complete Cal’s first 8-win season since 2009 would seal it.
2009 is a particularly important date in Dykes’ ongoing restoration of Cal football.
The Golden Bears harbored Pac-10 championship aspirations that season, behind a preseason Heisman Trophy contender in running back Jahvid Best. That season was also the last hurrah in a half-decade run of success under Dykes’ predecessor, Jeff Tedford. Conference title hopes and Heisman candidates became the program norm from 2004 through 2009.
Cal’s last 8-win finish was a milestone on the way down; this year, it can be a milestone on the climb upward.
Retaining Dykes is one important step. The face the offense takes on in the future is another.
Quarterback Jared Goff’s as much synonymous with the Cal rebuilding project as Dykes. Goff is the only starting quarterback the Golden Bears have known in Dykes’ three years as head coach, taking over the “bear-raid” offense in 2013.
He took his lumps that season, indicative of the team’s 1-11 finish. But Goff grew with the program, and now has the potential to be an NFL quarterback.
He was a popular name among draftniks as a possible No. 1 overall pick before the season. Thirteen interceptions and a dip to a 64.2 percent completion rating have toned down some of the buzz for Goff, who has yet to announce a pro decision.
Cal doesn’t necessarily need Goff back behind center in 2016 to continue its positive growth. The Golden Bears do, however, need to begin shaping their identity for the future so as not to rely on just one player.
Though a disciple of Mike Leach’s air raid, Dykes has long worked to establish a dangerous run game as part of his offense. After a 1,000-yard campaign in 2014, Daniel Lasco’s lingering injury issues held him back in 2015.
None of the four ball-carriers in a quartet backfield emerged as a big-play threat as Dykes had in NCAA record-setter Kenneth Dixon at Louisiana Tech. Lasco, Khalfani Muhammad, Tre Watson and Vic Enwere combined for 1,860 yards and 14 touchdowns while Goff and the receivers tallied 37 scores.
Against an Air Force defense that struggled stopping the run, the Armed Forces Bowl is prime-time for Cal to show off that overlooked phase of its offense.
But the most telling peek into Cal’s future Tuesday will come from Art Kaufman’s defense. Once the nation’s most porous defense, the Golden Bears didn’t just how life through the season’s first half; they led the nation in takeaways through September.
Pac-12 play saw a regression Cal can reverse Tuesday by slowing Air Force’s option offense. An authoritative effort against the Falcons should propel the Golden Bears into a promising offseason and bright 2016 — perhaps the brightest outlook Cal’s had going back to 2009.