Going into his second season as a head coach, California's Justin Wilcox fielded the inevitable question about what he has learned.

“How long do you have? I've got a notebook full. I'd hope I'd learn something,” Wilcox said last month during the Pac-12 Media Day. “You're just constantly trying to grow your program and build on what you've established.”

The Bears made some progress last year, mostly in nonconference games. Cal again will miss Utah in the Pac-12 scheduling rotation, but the Bears will visit BYU in a Sept. 8 game that ultimately may determine whether either team qualifies for a bowl.

The Bears will succeed if:

The defense improves and they can pick off a victory over a Pac-12 South team.

The schedule breakdown is fairly simple, in Cal's quest to become bowl-eligible. The Bears have to win their three nonconference games, beat North rivals Oregon State and Washington State and add a win over a South opponent, such as Colorado.

Cal’s defense features linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, but their linebacking group and secondary each ranks No. 10 in the Pac-12, according to Athlon Sports.

PAC-12 PREVIEWS
This is the first installment in The Tribune’s team-by-team look at Pac-12 football in 2018. Today: California.


Cal finished 5-7 (2-7 in conference play) in the first year under Wilcox, formerly a longtime defensive coordinator best known for his work at Boise State and Washington. The Bears are picked fourth in the Pac-12 North. Their nonconference schedule includes North Carolina and Idaho State at home and BYU on the road.

The Bears won’t succeed if:

They fail to develop more receiving threats beyond Vic Wharton III and the offense is not quite good enough to compensate for the defense’s problems.

Wharton is a star, having caught 67 passes for 831 yards last season. But three receivers transferred during the season, including Demetris Robertson, who missed most of last season with an injury after making 50 receptions in 2016.

Quarterback Ross Bowers should keep improving, and the Bears love running back Patrick Laird, who emerged with a 181-yard day vs. Weber State last September. Until then, “Not many people even knew his name, I’m sure,” Wilcox said.

Laird finished with 1,127 rushing yards in 2017, after having posted only 65 yards in his first two seasons.