Sonny Dykes’ first season as the Cal football coach was a forgettable one: A 1-11 record with the only victory coming against an FCS school (Portland State).
Cal’s defense gave up 45.9 points per game, the second-most in the country, and Dykes’ high-powered Bear Raid offense often found itself grounded.
The path won’t get any easier in 2014, either. Cal’s schedule features nine games against teams that played in bowl games last year and five opponents ranked in the preseason Top 25.
Here are three keys to Cal’s 2014 season:
After such a dreadful 2013, it is imperative for Cal to pile up some early wins this year. Not only does the schedule get considerably tougher down the stretch — with four of the final six games against teams that won at least 10 games last year — but Cal needs early wins from a confidence standpoint.
The Bears have to show fans and themselves they have corrected the costly mistakes that they were prone to during last year’s misery.
Few outsiders believe the Bears will be much better this season than they were last year and coach Sonny Dykes’ job status is already being questioned. A couple early victories, including the first Pac-12 Conference victory of the Dykes era, can at least temporarily silence some of the critics.
While a hot start in 2014 likely won’t lead to a winning season because Cal’s problems are going to take more than one season to remedy, it’s at least a building block in what needs to be a massive renovation.
But should Cal be slow out of the blocks, doubt and memories of 2013 could start to creep in and things could turn ugly quick.
SHORING UP THE DEFENSE
While Cal’s offense endured some growing pains last year, the defense was just flat-out painful to watch. It was among the worst units in the country. Not only did the Bears give up nearly 46 points a game, they allowed 7.08 yards per play, seventh-worst in the country, and 529.6 yards per game, ranked 122nd of the 123 FBS teams.
Dykes is hoping a change at coordinator can do the trick, as Andy Buh was let go and Art Kaufman was brought in.
Kaufman was the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati last year, where the Bearcats finished ninth in the country in yards allowed. Kaufman has a track record of turning things around quickly and is hoping to do the same in Berkeley. In 2012 at Texas Tech, he helped a unit that ranked 114th in the country the year prior slash its yards per game allowed from 456 to 367.3 in one season.
Kaufman should have more to work with than the Bears did by the end of the season last year after the defense was ravaged by injuries.
Defensive lineman Brennan Scarlett, safety Avery Sebastian and safety Stefan McClure, to name a few, are expected to be healthy for the season opener and should provide a boost to a unit that is in desperate need of one.
ESTABLISHING A RUNNING GAME
While much of the hype when Dykes was hired was about the up-tempo, passing attack he would employ in Berkeley, his offenses have traditionally been successful on the ground as well. That wasn’t the case in 2013, as Cal averaged just 122.2 yards rushing per game, 107th-best in the country, and scored only 10 rushing touchdowns. It was a far cry for a school that has produced NFL-caliber running backs Jahvid Best, Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett in recent years.
Running backs Daniel Lasco (317 yards rushing) and Khalfani Muhammad (445 yards rushing) both return after splitting carries with the departed Brendan Bigelow last year. Lasco and Muhammad will likely share the workload initially again this year, with freshmen Tre Watson and Vic Enwere possibly pushing for time.
The return of center Chris Adcock, who was lost early last season with a knee injury, should also help out the running game and solidify what was a suspect offensive line last season.
Cal’s inability to consistently move the chains on the ground often forced the Bears to become one dimensional last year and finding a balance will be key in 2014.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The quarterback’s 2013 season was kind of what you would expect from a true freshman: some flashes of brilliance and some moments that just left you shaking your head. Goff, the former Marin Catholic High School star who threw for 3,508 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2013, is entrenched as the starter this year after he was pulled from a couple games last season. He will likely put up even bigger numbers this season, but the Bears need him to limit the mistakes and become a more consistent decision maker.
The defensive end could be the Bears’ secret weapon this year. Scarlett didn’t play at all in 2013 after complications from a broken hand sustained in 2012 lingered. But Scarlett is regarded as having the potential to be Cal’s best defensive player and coach Sonny Dykes has said he thinks he can be “dominant.” If Scarlett can shake off the rust, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound junior’s ability to rush the passer will be a huge boost to a unit that recorded just 18 sacks last season.
The junior receiver was the biggest beneficiary of Cal’s pass-happy offense in 2013, hauling in 70 catches for 852 yards and five touchdowns. Harper has shown the ability to make the big play, as evidence by his 89-yard touchdown that was part of a 231-yard receiving day against Washington State last year. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Harper needs to continue to develop a rapport with Goff as the pair has shown signs that they can become a lethal combination.