2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Despite the rampant fireworks in the passing game, the 2013 season was a dud for California. In its first year under head coach Sonny Dykes, who brought his gun-slinging offensive style over from Louisiana Tech, California went just 1-11.
The lone win came early in the year when the Golden Bears bounced back from a 44-30 loss to Northwestern by escaping with a 37-30 triumph over FCS foe Portland State. From there they lost 10 straight games, with an average margin of defeat that was difficult to swallow (26.8 points).
If 2013 was rock bottom for the program, which has been to a bowl game just once in the last four seasons, then there is nowhere to go but up.
"In our profession, you are kind of what your record says you are. So you go from being pretty smart to being pretty dumb overnight, and it's a tough thing to live with." Dykes said during Pac-12 media days. "But we took a lot out of it. So I think it has been motivating for us. But you have to put it behind you, move on to next year"
OFFENSE: First, the good news. California absolutely shredded teams through the air last season. Dykes wasted no time putting his foot on the gas and installing the air-it-out system that made him so successful with the Bulldogs. The Golden Bears ranked 10th in the country in passing offense (331.4 ypg), and 34th in total offense (453.6 ypg).
They were so potent in throwing the ball, even with a true freshman under center. Jared Goff made his fair share of mistakes, with 10 interceptions, but generally he amazed as a rookie. He finished with 3,508 yards, breaking a school-record, and completed 60.3 percent of his pass attempts. His production teetered down the stretch, as he threw for fewer than 300 yards in each of the last four games, including efforts of 173 and 194 against Colorado and Stanford, respectively, in the last two weeks. Still, the future is bright for the talented youngster.
"A lot of times last year we threw him to the wolves a little bit. We had to score a lot of points every game. I think he felt pressure to do that. I think you look at his performance last year, middle of the season he kind of hit a period where he didn't improve that much. Maybe took a step backwards," Dykes said of Goff. "I think it was a result of us putting so much on him through the course of the year. So I think he's got to be more consistent."
Goff's prospects are particularly bright considering how deep and talented the Golden Bears' receiving corps is. Chris Harper (70 receptions, 852 yards, 5 TDs) and Bryce Treggs (77 receptions, 751 yards, 1 TD) are each back and set to form one of the premier wideout tandems in the conference. Kenny Lawler (37 receptions, 347 yards, 5 TDs) is an excellent third option.
The offensive line is also deep, with four starters back from last season in tackle Steven Moore, guards Chris Borrayo and Alejandro Crosthwaite and center Jordan Rigsbee.
Now for the bad news. Despite the impressive offensive efforts, the Golden Bears were only able to muster 23 ppg, which ranked dead last in the Pac-12. Poor red zone efficiency led to the weak scoring output, with the Golden Bears tallying only 21 touchdowns in a measly 43 trips inside the opponent's 20.
A huge reason for the scoring issues was a lack of a running game. The Golden Bears finished with just 1,828 rushing yards, for an average of 122.2 yards per game. Khalfani Muhammad (445 yards, 4 TDs) and Daniel Lasco (317 yards, 2 TDs) are both back to work on the production, but expect highly-touted recruit Tre Watson to suit up sooner rather than later.
DEFENSE: Weaknesses in the running game and in red-zone efficiency were really the only issues the Golden Bears had on offense last season. On the defensive side there was nothing but weak spots. Cal ranked at the bottom of the Pac-12 in both total (529.6 ypg) and scoring defense (45.9 ppg). In fact, it was the only team in the league to allow more than 500 yards and 40 points per game. The Golden Bears have not held an opponent to fewer than 20 points since October of 2012.
Dykes may not be a defensive-minded coach, but he certainly saw the need to make a drastic change on that side of the ball. That led to the hiring of Art Kaufman as defensive coordinator, replacing Andy Buh. Kaufman will have five returning starters to work with, the bulk of which comes at linebacker and in the secondary.
Michael Barton (64 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and Jalen Jefferson (64 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) should make for a solid duo in the middle of the field, despite their youth. Meanwhile, cornerback Cameron Walker (65 tackles) and safety Michael Lowe (67 tackles) will anchor the secondary, which desperately needs to cut down on its mistakes after allowing 331.4 passing yards per game in 2013. Lowe and Walker ranked first and second, respectively, in tackles a year ago.
The defensive line isn't as solid, with Kyle Kragen the only returning starter. The hope is that the newcomers, especially defensive end Brennan Scarlet, can help bolster a pass rush that accumulated only 17 sacks last season. Kragen had three of those, tying him with Jefferson for the team lead.
SPECIAL TEAMS: While the defense clearly needs the most work, special teams isn't far behind. The Golden Bears have to replace kicker Vincenzo D'Amato and find a way to get better production from the return game.
Treggs was the top punt returner last season, but he had only 39 yards on 19 returns.
Fortunately the other side of the punting game is in good hands, with Cole Leininger set to build off a season in which he averaged 42.9 yards per punt.
OUTLOOK: Sometimes it takes a complete disaster to put things in perspective and to begin the rebuilding process. The Golden Bears certainly hope last year was just that, and not the beginning of a miserable trend.
If they want to rise from the ashes in 2014, they will need to play well right away. They face Northwestern in Evanston to start the season, and then dip into the FCS ranks to host Sacramento State. The Pac-12 slate begins with games against Arizona, Colorado, Washington State and Washington. Those are perhaps the easiest tests of the conference calendar, with the final stretch a brutal mix of UCLA, Oregon, USC, Stanford and Oregon State on the road. Cal won't have time to breathe after that run, as it hosts BYU to close out the campaign.
Goff was productive last season without being as efficient as he could have been. Expect him to take a step forward, especially with the talent around him in the passing game and up front. However, the Golden Bears would need a dramatic (and frankly miraculous) turnaround on the defensive side of the ball just to challenge for a handful of wins, let alone a bowl berth.