In two years, California has gone from a 1-11 season to college football’s big stage.
The 23rd-ranked Golden Bears (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) are off to their best start since 2007 and are heading into their biggest game in coach Sonny Dykes’ three-year tenure when they travel to No. 5 Utah (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday in a matchup of the Pac-12’s only remaining undefeated teams.
With ESPN’s “College GameDay” on hand for a Cal game for the first time since 2009, the Bears know this is the chance to show that they have returned to relevance in college football and are ready to contend for a conference title after years of struggles.
“We’re trying to stay in the national conversation,” receiver Bryce Treggs said Tuesday. “We understand if we beat a great Utah team, we’ll obviously move up in the charts. We’re viewing this as a good opportunity to go in the national spotlight and make a statement.”
While the presence of GameDay and the hype around the game are exciting, the message Dykes has been giving his team this week is to tune out all the outside noise and simply prepare to play a football game.
“We were ranked last and we didn’t talk about it,” Dykes said. “Now that we aren’t ranked last we’re not going to talk about it either.”
Cal had a stretch as a national contender under former coach Jeff Tedford about a decade ago. The Bears had a top 10 showdown against Southern California in 2004 and made it as high as No. 4 in the poll that season.
Cal went even higher in 2007 when the Bears last got off to a 5-0 start. They reached No. 2 in the rankings only to blow a home game late against Oregon State with a chance to move up to No. 1.
That loss started a downward slide that bottomed out in Dykes’ first season in 2013 when Cal’s only win came against lower-division Portland State.
Now led by record-setting quarterback Jared Goff, the Bears have the chance for their first 6-0 start since 1950 and the excitement around the program is noticeable to the players in their daily life on campus.
Dykes said he is mostly in a coaching cocoon but has noticed subtle changes.
“When you get coffee or something in the morning maybe those people are a little nicer to you,” Dykes said. “I don’t have to worry about somebody poisoning my coffee like I used to.”
After squandering a 4-1 start last year by losing six of their final seven games when players said issues of complacency ended up doing them in, the Bears are remaining focused on the immediate this season.
It helps that the schedule suddenly becomes much more strenuous than it was the first five games.
After the trip to Utah comes a visit to No. 20 UCLA, a home game against No. 17 USC and a trip to perennial power Oregon. Following a home game against Oregon State, the Bears finish the regular season with a trip to No. 16 Stanford and a home game against Arizona State.
“Right now it’s still early in the year so you can’t sit there and worry about getting pats on the back for something you did last week when you have a game in five more days,” safety Stefan McClure said. “We’re really just focused onto the next game now.”