2022 Pac-12 Football Preview: Bears Faced with Rebuild

Cal lost substantial talent on both sides of the ball from a team that went 5-7 in 2021

Posted on July 18, 2022

  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

This Cal preseason football preview is the seventh of 12 to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the 2022 Pac-12 season on September 1st.

Pac-12Each preview consists of nine sections: OverviewBest-Case ScenarioWorst-Case ScenarioWhat Should HappenWhat Must HappenGreatest StrengthBiggest ConcernDeciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.

Nothing is set in stone, however, as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer.

Cal Bears Fast Facts

2021 Record: 5-7, 4-5
Head Coach: Justin Wilcox (26-28 in 5 years at Cal)
Offensive Coordinator: Bill Musgrave
Defensive Coordinator: Peter Sirmon
Home Stadium: Memorial Stadium (63,000) Berkeley, CA
Last Conference Title: 2006 Pac-10 Co-Champion

Coming off a 5-7 season, California enters the 2022 campaign having lost its starting quarterback, three of its top four receivers, its starting tight end, and two of its top three running backs.

The loss of production is just as bad on defense, where the Bears must find a way to replace five of their top seven leading tacklers, their top two leading sackers, their top two players in fumbles forced, and three of their top four leading tacklers for loss.

That’s an inordinate amount of talent lost on both sides of the ball from a team that hasn’t made a bowl game since the 2019 season.

Cal head coach Justin Wilcox | mercurynews.com

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Justin Wilcox returns his leading tackler in safety Daniel Scott, along with talented linebackers Nate Rutchena and Muelu Iosefa, plus corners Lu-Magia Hearns III and Collin Gamble.

The five combined for more than half of the Bears’ interceptions last year, almost half of the pass deflections, and a respectable portion of their tackles for loss.

Bolstered by Washington linebacker transfer Jackson Sirmon, Utah defensive lineman transfer Xavier Carlton, Purdue quarterback transfer Jack Plummer, and four-star freshman running back Jaydn Ott, the Bears have enough talent to reach a bowl game.

Best-Case Scenario
California comes out of the gates hot, starting the year 6-1 with noteworthy road victories over Washington State and Colorado on top of home victories against Arizona and Washington.

The relatively soft nonconference schedule, apart from the matchup at Notre Dame in Week Three, makes the path to bowl eligibility smooth in the first half of the year.

Without anyone to seriously threaten his job security, Plummer operates Bill Musgrave’s offense efficiently while Damien Moore thrives as the every-down back.

Cal QB Jack Plummer | cal.rivals.com

The duo combine for more than 30 touchdowns on the season, as the top returning wide receiver Jeremiah Hunter emerges as a consistent threat in the passing game.

True freshman Ott is part of the rotation from Week One, effectively spelling Moore and doing damage catching passes out of the backfield.

On defense, the tested linebacker corps of Rutchena, Iosefa, and Sirmon lead the team on and off the field, helping to produce a Top 25 scoring defense in Wilcox’s sixth season.

With talent in the secondary and the addition of Carlton along the defensive line, the Cal defense puts it into position to win close games week-in and week-out.

Although the year ends with a tough stretch of losses to Oregon, USC, Oregon State, and UCLA, the Bears take down Stanford for the third time in the last four years en route to a seven-win season.

Worst-Case Scenario
The lost production on both sides of the ball is devastating.

The defense is able to hold its own, but the offense substantially regresses and fails to eclipse 21.0 points per game.

The relatively inexperienced wide receivers corps doesn’t pose a threat to opposing secondaries, boxing Cal into becoming a run-heavy offense that is entirely too predictable.

Big plays in the passing game are hard to come by, leading defenses to stack the box and game plan exclusively around Moore.

Cal running back Damien Moore | Sports Illustrated

The result is an ugly offense that can’t win close games.

The Bears start 3-1, securing an important revenge victory over Arizona, but only manage to beat Colorado over the final eight games of the year to end the season 4-8.

The problems on offense lead to the termination of Musgrave and a concerning offseason where Wilcox’s name is continually linked to job openings.

What Should Happen
Moore should excel as the primary back with Plummer under center.

The decision-making from the experienced quarterback should make life easier for the RB, whose knack for finding the end zone is exemplified in red zone situations.

Plummer posts Cal’s highest touchdown-to-interception ratio since Chase Garbers’ 2019 barn-burner season, annulling the preseason concerns in the wideout room.

Cal OC Bill Musgrave | Sports Illustrated

The result is an offense that posts its most points per game since 2017, propelling the Bears to bowl eligibility for the first time in three years.

On defense, the combined strength of the linebackers and defensive backs should produce one of the top scoring defenses in the Pac-12.

Able to consistently hold opponents to 21 points or fewer, the unit solidifies Cal’s reputation as a defense-first program that is able to win low-scoring games.

What Must Happen
Multiple leaders must emerge from the wide receiver corps.

Hunter is the lone returning WR with significant numbers, leaving a gaping hole to be filled.

Fortunately, Plummer has the skill required to keep the passing game just as productive without Garbers and should help develop the inexperienced group.

Cal tight end Keleki Latu | Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sophomore tight end Keleki Latu and redshirt freshman receiver J.Michael Sturdivant have sizable opportunities to take advantage of, along with incoming freshman receiver Jaiven Plummer and junior college transfer Mason Starling.

Whoever ends up as the second and third options must do so from the start of the season, or the Cal offense could find itself stuck without enough threats in the passing game.

Greatest Strength
The Bears’ secondary and linebacker corps combine to rival any other team in the Conference of Champions.

The trio of Rutchena, Iosefa, and Sirmon should be among the top LB groups in the Conference.

Cal linebacker Nate Rutchena | vacavilleinsider.com

But the secondary might be even stronger. Led by redshirt senior safety Scott, the corners are held down by Hearns III and Gamble.

The sophomore and junior CBs combined for 15 pass deflections last season and should take another jump under defensive back coach Tre Watson’s tutelage.

Mixed with Scott’s 82 total tackles and three interceptions, the DB group promises to help make Cal’s defense elite.

Biggest Concern
The lack of returning production at wide receiver is arguably Concern No. 1 for Wilcox heading into the season.

But outside of the clear lack of experience in that position group, the defensive line may be a growing cause for concern. The Bears were surprisingly below-average in sacks per game last year, tied for 78th in the country with only 2.0 per game.

Cal defensive end Ethan Saunders | Pac-12 Conference

Those numbers are probably attributable to the lack of penetration up front, putting an emphasis on the development of defensive linemen Ethan Saunders and Jaedon Roberts during the offseason.

Carlton has been brought in from Utah, which should provide a boost to the group, but the Bears will need increased production from its D-Line in order to reach bowl eligibility.

Any contribution from true freshman Nathan Burrell and redshirt junior Brett Johnson would be a welcomed sight for the unit.

Deciding Factors
With a defense that promises to be rock solid, the offense’s propensity for turnovers could be a significant deciding factor.

California was among the top teams in all of College Football last season in turnovers lost, ending the season seventh overall with only 10 throughout the year.

Eight of those were interceptions, though, which figure to take center stage with Plummer under center.

If the redshirt senior can take care of the ball better than Garbers, the Cal defense should do enough to put the offense in positions to win.

Cal OL Matthew Cindric | Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports

But if Plummer doesn’t adjust well to Musgrave’s system and commits too many INTs, the Top 10 turnover margin Cal enjoyed last season could fall to a more average ratio, substantially harming the Bears’ chances in close games.

Plummer’s decision-making could prove to be the difference, yet the offensive line’s protection may play a larger role.

Led by OL Matthew Cindric with 27 career starts, the hog-mollies up front must keep the QB comfortable with an inexperienced wide receiver group running routes.

Schedule Analysis
2022 Cal Bears Schedule

Sept. 3 vs UC Davis
Sept. 1o vs UNLV
Sept. 17 at Notre Dame
Sept. 24 vs Arizona
Oct. 1 at Washington State
Oct. 15 at Colorado
Oct. 22 vs Washington
Oct. 29 vs Oregon
Nov. 5 at USC
Nov. 12 at Oregon State
Nov. 19 vs Stanford
Nov. 25 vs UCLA

The season starts with what promises to be two relatively straightforward home games against UC Davis and UNLV. With a strong defense to hold down the fort, the Bears should start 2-0.

The matchup in Week Three on the road against Notre Dame won’t be easy and likely ends with a loss. The final score may be closer than some may think, but it would be one of the most shocking upsets of the year if Cal walks away with a win.

The rematch with Arizona in Week Four could be a bellwether game. A defeat to the Wildcats could send the season into a spiral, while a victory would probably indicate a bowl game is on the horizon.

Arizona could be a bellwether game | Nathanial Stenchever/The Daily Wildcat

The Bears then travel to Pullman to face Wazzu, a game that could go either way.

Cal stays on the road the following week, taking on Colorado in Boulder. Despite the altitude challenge and the probable belief within the CU roster, the Bears should find a way to win.

The matchup with UW in the third week of October is a fascinating battle.

California should be favored and probably wins the game, but any offensive stumbles from the Bears could cost them the “W.” In the end, the lead may exchange late in the fourth quarter off a turnover that produces the game-winning drive.

The next two games against Oregon and USC figure to be losses. The Ducks are strong and the Trojans are revitalized, although upsets do happen.

The final stretch of the year features two tough games against Oregon State and UCLA, both of which could wind up as defeats. The Big Game against Stanford, on the other hand, is a different story.

The Bears have won two of the last three and should make it three of the last four with a win in Berkeley.

With a slate that shapes up like that, five wins appear to be a reasonable floor, with seven wins as the ceiling. A happy medium is a 6-6 finish and a bowl game for the first time in three years.

—More from Dane Miller—