SAN DIEGO — Now what?
For the second time in three years, Cal's football team failed to live up to expectations. Colossally. And this time, the Bears limp into the offseason after arguably their two worst performances of the season.
After being on the verge of a Bowl Championship Series berth in 2004 and 2006, Cal enters its third straight offseason struggling to stay relevant nationally. The Bears don't figure to be anywhere near the national polls when the 2010 season starts and likely will be picked to finish in the middle of the Pac-10.
So where do the Bears go from here?
"It's just a matter of players playing better," said quarterback Kevin Riley, who should be included as one of those players. "Good teams are consistent throughout the whole game. I think we'll be fine. We just have to work harder. Maybe this will give everyone a little edge to work harder."
The question is whether the Bears have the talent and coaching to contend for a conference championship and be a player on the national scene. Many experts believed they did this year when they started the season ranked 12th in the Associated Press Top 25. That was also the Bears' preseason ranking in 2007, when they went 7-6 after starting the season 5-0.
Cal notched quality wins over Arizona and Stanford this season, but it was outscored 182-57 in its five defeats. Wednesday's 37-27 loss to No. 23 Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl was the Bears' closest defeat of their 8-5 season, and it wasn't that close.
"It's quite obvious that the tone will be set with making sure that we go back to work and work hard," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "You win, you're still going to work hard. You're not successful, you're still going to work hard. It's not anything different than we ever do. This is going to sting for a while, and then we're going to regroup."
How the Bears regroup remains to be seen. Was the failure to maximize their potential indicative of talent or coaching? Or does Tedford need to make any changes in the way his program does business?
The message outside the locker room Wednesday was that the Bears simply have to go back to work to improve. Departing senior left tackle Mike Tepper suggested there may be times the players don't play with enough urgency.
Determining a course of action could be problematic for Tedford and his staff because the Bears were so inconsistent this season. The offense piled up big numbers in some games and trudged along in others. Just when it looked as though the defense had come alive with back-to-back terrific performances against Arizona and Stanford, it played horribly for the next six quarters.
This marked the third straight season the Bears got uneven play at quarterback. Riley, finally the undisputed starter after the departure of Nate Longshore, had some nice moments but ended the season with arguably his two worst performances of the year. Tedford has called for an open quarterback competition in each of the past two offseasons, and Riley didn't do anything this year to prevent it from happening again.
In fairness, Riley's inconsistency wasn't only his fault. Cal's receivers are bigger and stronger than the old regime of DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan, but they lack the explosiveness that trio possessed. That results in less separation from defensive backs, giving Riley less margin for error. And the Bears' inexperienced offensive line was up and down in pass protection as well.
Even if Jahvid Best departs for the NFL, one position Tedford won't have to worry about is running back. With Best or Shane Vereen as the starter, Cal will feature one of the best tailbacks in the Pac-10.
Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory acknowledged that he has to figure out why his unit is seventh in the Pac-10 in both scoring defense (25.5 points per game) and total defense (378.8 yards per game). Once he does, implementing a solution will be a difficult task.
Gregory will have to find a way to fix the secondary. Considered to be the strength of the defense going into the season, the unit was a main reason why the Bears are ranked 108th nationally in pass defense. The Bears will lose All-Pac-10 first-team cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson and are left with no proven defensive backs.
The biggest loss on defense will be defensive end Tyson Alualu, who not only should be playing in the NFL next season but was the heart and soul of the unit.
The good news for Gregory is he gets middle linebacker Mike Mohamed back for one more season. Mohamed led the Pac-10 in tackles this year and could enter the 2010 season on a lot of preseason All-America lists.
"The first thing I will remember about the season is a bunch of guys who played hard and never, ever gave up," Gregory said. "This was an awesome group of guys. Did we make as many plays throughout the year as we wanted to? Certainly not. It's up to me to figure out where things broke down and make it better."
The Bears also continued a troubling trend of poor special teams play, especially on kick coverage. Cal consistently allowed long returns to give opponents good field position, and when they didn't, kicker Giorgio Tavecchio wasn't kicking it deep enough in the first place.
"(Athletic director) Sandy Barbour, Coach T, all the coaches, the players — we all believe that we can win a national championship," Tepper said. "We just have to do it."