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2021 Pac-12 Football Previews: Cal Bears

Posted on July 19, 2021

  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

This Cal outlook is the sixth of 12 preseason previews to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the Pac-12 season on August 28th.

Each preview is comprised of nine sections: OverviewBest-Case ScenarioWorst-Case ScenarioWhat Should HappenWhat Must HappenGreatest StrengthBiggest ConcernDeciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.

Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.


Justin Wilcox and the Bears might as well throw the 2020 season out of the window.

The four-game farce of a year saw Cal suffer two gut-wrenching defeats due to special teams errors, and was marred by COVID restrictions that inhibited the development of Bill Musgrave’s offense.


With a full offseason to implement the system, California should be on better footing heading into the fifth year under Wilcox.

Chase Garbers returns along with a healthy Christopher Brown Jr. in the backfield, four starting offensive linemen, and the Bears’ leading receiver in Kekoa Crawford.

And with the Pac-12’s third-best recruiting class, highlighted by four-star receiver J. Michael Sturdivant, the program is set to bounce back from its forgettable 1-3 season.

Best-Case Scenario

Coming out of the gate strong, California handles Nevada in the opener and upsets TCU in Fort Worth a week later. The 2-0 start energizes the roster and infuses the program with confidence, carrying the team to a nine-win season.


The success is due in large part to the offensive improvement in Year Two of Musgrave’s system. Garbers executes the throws necessary to keep drives alive, while Brown Jr. stays healthy throughout the long season.

Four-star freshmen Jermaine Terry, Mavin Anderson, and Sturdivant all contribute and carve out defined roles, each scoring multiple touchdowns by the end of the season.

With the limited practice time in 2020 a ghost of the past, Cal’s 20.2 points per game is substantially increased.


And despite the loss of defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter to Oregon, the Bear defense doesn’t miss a beat. Linebackers Kuony Deng and Cameron Goode have All-Conference years, along with cornerback Elijah Hicks.

As the cherry on top, four-star freshman defensive lineman Akili Calhoun cracks the rotation by posting multiple games with tackles-for-loss in his first year in Berkeley.

Worst Case Scenario

The Bears struggle in the opener against the Wolf Pack and get blown out in Texas by the Horned Frogs. The shaky beginning throws a wet towel on expectations, resulting in a six-win season without a noteworthy upset.

Although taking care of the opponents it should, Cal falls short against Washington, Oregon, and USC. The year ends with three-straight losses, including the Big Game and UCLA, as Musgrave’s offense sputters.

The lone silver-lining of the year is four-star freshman quarterback Kai Millner. The heir-apparent to Garbers plays better than expected when given the chance, sending a beacon of hope for things to come.

What Should Happen

The Cal defense should continue to be the strength of the program. After losing Camryn Bynum to the NFL and DeRuyter to the Ducks, Wilcox is relying on his seniors to remain consistent.

Hicks, Goode, and Deng are among the best at their positions in the Conference of Champions, cementing a unit well-known for its ball-hawking prowess. The trio’s leadership on the second level projects to once again guide the Bears to a bowl appearance and winning season.

And with a standard fall and summer camp to learn the full playbook, Garbers and the offense take a step forward. The result is a roster with confidence to come back from deficits and hold leads in the fourth quarter.

What Must Happen

The disasters on special teams cost Cal two games of a shortened year. Had the mistakes not been made in the Stanford and Oregon State matchups, the perception of the 2021 season would be drastically different.


Yet, to cite an old but apt cliché, there’s no point in crying over spilled milk.

Executing on special teams is arguably the primary concern for Wilcox beyond the implementation of Musgrave’s offense. Blocked punts, mishandled snaps, and penalties must be addressed to allay the game-changing issues.

Charlie Ragle is in his fifth season as the Special Team Coordinator, leaving no excuses for failing to get the job done.

Pinning defeats on one unit is often unfair, but fixing the errors on special teams is a must for Cal to be successful in close games.

Greatest Strength
Cal football

The leadership Garbers brings to the table is arguably unmatched at the quarterback position in the Pac-12.

The senior’s ability to drive his teammates to give their maximum effort has directly correlated with the growth of the program under Wilcox.

Leading by example, Garbers’ willingness to run the ball, take hits, and make accurate throws is what sets him apart from some others in the Conference.

The modern era prototype college quarterback, he possesses a special trait found only among the best leaders.

Chase Garbers hands off to Christopher Brown Jr. | Ted S. Warren/AP

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is Garbers’ team, and his presence figures to rally the Bears once again in 2021.

In many ways, Cal’s success is dependent on his.

Biggest Concern

Health is always a factor on any team’s success, but Garbers and Brown Jr. are arguably irreplaceable on the Bears’ roster.

Penn transfer Ryan Glover has been brought in to add some depth behind Garbers, but Wilcox may be forced to decide between the grad transfer and Millner if his Number One option is unable to go.

Brown Jr.

And although Damien Moore and Marcel Dancy filled the gaps during Brown Jr.’s absence, the Cal rushing attack posted just 125.3 yards per game last year.

After combining for 25 total touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards in 2019, Garbers and Brown Jr. are the identity of Wilcox’s offense.

Any injuries to the two leaders would be a challenge to overcome, and could indicate the lack of depth at the two positions.

Deciding Factors

Besides the offensive development, staying healthy, and improvement on special teams, the key to Cal’s season might be its freshmen class.


Ranked 28th in the country, the five four-star prospects have the potential to play right away.

Terry is a tight end from California that should fit in well in Musgrave’s offense, while Sturdivant could end up starting every game. Anderson might regularly contribute as well.

And with the season-ending hip injury to defensive lineman Brett Johnson, Calhoun may find himself starting from Week One.

The remainder of the class are mid to high-three stars with the potential to breakout. Developing the freshmen over the long season could be the difference between a six and nine-win year.

cal pac012 football
Cal’s O-line is deep and experienced. | Mike Wondolowski/KLC fotos

As an added bonus, Florida State transfer safety and former four-star Raymond Woodie III adds another weapon to the already deadly defense.

Schedule Analysis

The season begins at home with a winnable matchup against Nevada, followed by a trip to Texas to face TCU. Splitting the opening two games of the year is the bare minimum expectation, and a 2-0 start isn’t out of the question.

A cupcake against Sacramento State rounds out the nonconference slate.

Pac-12 play begins in Seattle, a tough matchup that likely ends in defeat. Washington State comes to Berkeley the following week, which should end in a Bear victory.

Oregon Ducks LogoA road game against Oregon in Week Seven figures to end in another Cal loss, potentially resulting in a 3-3 start to the campaign.

Winnable games against Colorado and Oregon State follow at Memorial Stadium, along with a road game against Arizona. Those three tests should all end in victories.

But the season ends with a tough stretch against USC, Stanford, and UCLA. Optimistically, the Bears go 2-1 in the matchups, although a 1-2 finish to the year wouldn’t be a surprise.

In the end, a bowl game appears to be a near-certainty, with the potential to reach eight or nine wins if everything goes right.

—More from Dane Miller—