Only eight of the 22 players who started Cal's final game a year ago are back from a team that was 5–7 overall and, at 4–5 in Pac-12 play, fell short of a winning conference record for the 12th consecutive season.
But Bears head coach Justin Wilcox, beginning his sixth season in Berkeley, sees opportunity. He points out that the Bears lost five games by a touchdown or less, suggesting the arc of their season could have been dramatically different.
"We have very high expectations for ourselves. You look at last season and what we did well and where we felt short, we've got to win in the margins," he says. "Can we find ways coaching and playing as a team to make up those margins?"
They'll pursue that goal with significantly less starting experience than they've had in several years, but Wilcox likes his team's talent level. "Physically, there are guys who can do the jobs," he says. "They just haven't done it yet."
Previewing California's Offense for 2022
Every skill position player who started in the season-ending win over USC is gone, including quarterback Chase Garbers. His likely replacement is Purdue transfer Jack Plummer, who arrived as a senior with two years of eligibility and got first-team reps in spring ball.
"He's accurate down the field (with) the intermediate throws, the deep throws and he's got a real good understanding of football," Wilcox says of the former part-time starter with the Boilermakers. The coaching staff also likes redshirt freshman Kai Millner, but he has never thrown a pass in a college game.
Damien Moore had some fumbling issues last season but has recorded a 100-yard rushing game in each of the last two seasons as a part-time starter.
The wideout position is anchored by Jeremiah Hunter, who averaged 18.5 yards per catch. Otherwise, the staff is optimistic about redshirt freshmen J.Michael Sturdivant and Mavin Anderson. "We do feel like the young wideouts could be a real strength for us. They've got to come of age," Wilcox says.
Likewise, sophomore tight ends Keleki Latu and Jermaine Terry II are young but have good potential. They will often be on the field at the same time.
The offensive line is thinner after two offseason losses, with guard McKade Mettauer transferring to Oklahoma and tackle Will Craig retiring.
Previewing California's Defense for 2022
The Bears welcome back defensive lineman Brett Johnson, who missed the entire 2021 season after suffering a serious hip injury in a car accident. Johnson, who can play anywhere along the D-line but likely will start at end, may be the team's best player. He was kept to a "pitch count" during spring ball, but he says, "For all intents and purposes, I'm ready to go."
Cal's deepest position is inside linebacker, featuring Washington transfer Jackson Sirmon, whose 91 tackles last season are second among returning players in the Pac-12. "He's a talented player and has a significant amount of experience, so we're looking for him to help the team," says defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon, who doubles as Jackson's dad.
Fellow inside linebackers Femi Oladejo, Nate Rutchena, Muelu Iosefa and Trey Paster combined for nearly 150 tackles at the position a year ago.
The secondary this season will be anchored by safety Daniel Scott, who led the Bears with 82 tackles and had three interceptions last season. Cornerback Lu-Magia Hearns III was good enough to land a starting job midway through his freshman season.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2022
Previewing California's Specialists for 2022
One of the Bears' few areas of experience is in the kicking game, where Dario Longhetto returns after converting all 31 PAT tries and making 11-of-14 field goals, and Jamieson Sheahan averaged 43.1 yards per punt a year ago.
There is less certainty in the return game, where the Bears will move forward without Nikko Remigio, who averaged 29.1 yards on kick returns.
The Bears had a combined record of just 6–10 over the last two seasons after going 15–11 the two previous seasons, but Wilcox has done enough to impress Cal's administration. His alma mater Oregon came calling in the offseason, and Wilcox delivered a surprise response by turning down their head-coaching job offer.
Turns out he and the school already were working on a contract extension that could keep him in Berkeley through the 2027 season and will pay him an average of $4.75 million prior to incentive bonuses. His new deal also came with a nearly 20 percent increase for the assistant coaches' salary pool.
Wilcox's commitment to Cal is born out of his belief the program is on the cusp of a breakthrough. "If we continue along this path," he says, "we can do some great things here, and things that haven't been done before."
One thing the Bears haven't done is beat Notre Dame. They will take an 0–4 all-time record against the Fighting Irish to South Bend on Sept. 17, the first clash between the two programs in 55 seasons. Even with that significant obstacle, it's not difficult to envision Cal starting 5–1.
The Bears' Pac-12 schedule is backloaded with games against Washington, Oregon and USC on consecutive weekends, before home dates vs. Stanford and UCLA to close the regular season.
The Bears are undaunted. Says linebacker Oladejo, "We expect to be a Pac-12 championship team."