The California Golden Bears enter the Poinsettia Bowl with a pretty respectable 8-4 record. They were also ranked entering the final week of the regular season after a great win over their resurgent rival Stanford on the road.
Yet, like Utah, there could have been so much more to this season. In fact, California started the year ranked 12th nationally and rose as high as sixth after a 3-0 start. It's been pretty much all downhill since that impressive start and it began against Oregon a week after the Utes' nation-leading winning streak was halted by those same Ducks.
Cal saw a harder fall, undoubtedly, because expectations were extremely high entering this season. They were, after all, a potential heir to the throne if SC were to vacate it in a rebuilding year. Part of that equation happened, however, the Golden Bears failed to take advantage of the situation and instead were passed by the Oregon Ducks.
Because of this, many fans in Berkeley are justifiably disappointed. When you're floated around as Rose Bowl material three weeks into the season (Cal last played in the Rose Bowl in 1959) and the best you can do is the Poinsettia Bowl, there certainly will be some frustration among fans.
But has this season been a success and does that success hinge on their bowl performance?
Generally, unless you've exceeded expectations or put together an amazing regular season, losses in bowl games undo any good you've created in the season. This is probably the same mindset that will carry over for both teams Wednesday.
Though Cal can hang their hats on a decent win over a pretty solid Stanford team, Utah cannot. There isn't one single victory on the Utes' schedule that will be lasting over the next few years. We won't look back at the Air Force game as a solid, memorable victory. It just isn't - even though the Falcons are playing in their third consecutive bowl.
So, for both teams, it appears the success of a season does hinge on either's ability in the bowl game. Win and the season can be salvaged. Lose and there will be far more questions than answers this spring and summer.
Looking at the schedule of Cal (we already know Utah's), it isn't hard to see why, though.
Golden Bears Football Schedule
|W 52 - 13
|W 59 - 7
|W 35 - 21
|L 3 - 42
|L 3 - 30
|W 45 - 26
|W 49 - 17
|@ Arizona St.
|W 23 - 21
|L 14 - 31
|W 24 - 16
|W 34 - 28
|L 10 - 42
|6:00 PM MST
Cal does own two out of conference victories over BCS teams, but neither have done anything amazing this season. It is true Minnesota is a bowl team this year, but just barely and Maryland might have produced one of the worst seasons in ACC history.
Of course, it isn't what you do against the bad teams, rather what you do against the good (we know that very well here at Utah). Here they have struggled - even though they've faired a bit better than Utah.
There was that game against Oregon, where they were embarrassed 42-3. I can't begin to explain what the hell went wrong in that one because the Ducks - up until that point - had not looked entirely threatening. Remember, a week prior, they had to fend off a Utah team late in the second half. The Utes weren't supposed to have near as potent of an offense and yet they did more against the Ducks in bad weather than Cal could have ever hoped to do.
A week later, their offense was yet again shut down by SC in a 30-3 loss. When a team can only muster six points in a two-week span, you know there are issues. Certainly that offense has struggled at times against more talented and faster opponents.
Adding to their struggles, Cal's defense has been just as inconsistent as their offense. In the first three weeks, they only allowed 41 total points. They gave up one more than that in a single game against the Ducks. That is a fairly rapid change and it has been just as much their undoing as the offensive ineptness at times.
But what is more shocking is just how thoroughly defeated Cal can look in their defeats. In all four of their losses, they've put up absolutely no fight. Which is the exact opposite of the Utes - who were only dismantled in one game this year. The Golden Bears' ugliest loss of the season actually came at the tail end against Washington. It was a game they needed to win to secure a more lucrative bowl and they were absolutely shredded by a Husky team still searching for its identity under a new coaching staff.
That 42-10 loss was once again a mix of offensive and defensive struggles. Neither showed up and were pretty much overmatched from the start. It's hard to imagine a team coached by Jeff Tedford completely laying down and dying in an important game like that, but they have. In fact, they did it three times before and each defeat seems more inexcusable than the next.
So, what does this mean for the Poinsettia Bowl? Hard to say. This is a wildly inconsistent team. Even more than the Utes.
What Golden Bears team will we see Wednesday? The one who managed to knock off Arizona and Stanford, or the one who was depantsed by Oregon, SC and Washington?
That's the ultimate question for this game. Because of this, it's hard to actually predict a score. However, Kyle Whittingham has never lost a bowl game as Utah's coach and I don't think that'll change Wednesday. Utes win 42-28.
Maybe I'm expecting too much from this offense. Then again, with how the Cal defense has played in all of their losses, maybe not.