For Cal coach Justin Wilcox, whose program has experienced three straight losing seasons after three encouraging ones, the big picture is no different than the goal for Saturday’s opening game at North Texas.
“Winning,” Wilcox said when asked what would constitute a successful season. “Winning a lot. Winning as many games as possible.
“We feel good about our team. We’re going to have to keep improving — we’re not a finished product yet. It’s a great opportunity for us to set the bar for the season and continue to try and raise it each and every week.”
The Bears won’t arrive in Denton, Texas consumed by the nonstop chatter about conference realignment. Yes, the Pac-12 as we know it is dead, and Cal might find itself in the Atlantic Coast Conference a year from now.
“Until something is set,” Wilcox said, “I don’t need to spend a lot of emotional capital on it.”
Cal is expected to win this game against an opponent with a new coach, a new quarterback and a new conference. The Bears, coming off a 4-8 campaign, are 6.5-point favorites on the road.
The Mean Green has played in bowl games in three straight seasons despite a combined record of two games under .500. They visited Berkeley in 2019, battling back from a 20-0 hole before losing 23-17.
“They’re going to come out and play,” Wilcox said. “They have our full attention.”
Here are three keys to Cal’s chances on Saturday:
— How nervous will quarterback Sam Jackson V be in his first start since Oct. 25, 2019?
That’s right, the third-year sophomore transfer from TCU has not started a game since the final contest of his junior season at Naperville Central High in suburban Chicago.
“It was a rough game,” said Jackson of the 66-21 loss to unbeaten East St. Louis, and became his prep finale when the pandemic wiped out his senior season.
Butterflies are part of the deal for Jackson.
“I’m nervous before everything that I do,” he said. “I know that Saturday I’m going to be nervous. But after the first play I’m going to be ready to roll because I came prepared. Preparation takes over that feeling.
“I’m not scared or anything, I’m just nervous because it’s been a while.”
First-year offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who will unveil his fast-paced version of the spread offense, has confidence in his quarterback.
“Sam’s the guy,” he said. “He’s still a young guy, has not started a college game. But he has shown growth over these last few practices. He’s getting a lot more comfortable with the game plan.”
— Can the Bears handle the Texas heat?
The forecast calls for 99 degrees on Saturday in Denton, and the recipe comes with a side order of humidity, The Bears can’t simulate that in Berkeley and last Saturday they trekked to UC Davis for 95 degrees and some manufactured humidity.
As many as 11 Cal players making the trip (along with three assistant coaches) either grew up or played in the Lone Star State so there is familiarity with the weather.
“I’ve seen some players from North Texas saying we’re not going to be ready and it’s an advantage for them,” Jackson said. “I think we’re going to be ready. The heat gets pretty intense but it’s really a mental thing.”
The Bears will hydrate and rotate players to stay as fresh as possible.
“It’s going to be hot — we all know that,” Wilcox said. “There’ll be no excuse from us regarding the weather.”
— Will all the new pieces fit for Cal?
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While this will be the North Texas debut of coach Eric Morris and quarterback Stone Earle, the Bears have 49 newcomers on the roster.
“I think our ceiling’s been raised,” Wilcox said of the talent level. “But we haven’t played together, many of us. Building chemistry . . . you do that in the offseason and during practices, but there’s no test like the game.”
“Week 1 is where we kind of see what we have,” Jackson said. “I think we’re going to be pretty explosive . . . we’re going to shock some people.”
Safety Craig Woodson has seen evidence of that explosiveness in practice. “I tell everybody, ‘Be ready for the show.’ ”