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Cal's new football coach Sonny Dykes and his young players are clear about one thing. This isn't a rebuilding season — or whatever they call seasons like this one in college sports.

The Golden Bears, who went a humbling 3-9 last season, are ready to play with the good teams, and they will prove it Saturday night starting at 7:30 against No. 22 Northwestern. We'll skip over the brutal fact that Cal is opening at home at 7:30 p.m., and Stanford is opening in Palo Alto a week later at 8 p.m. Whatever happened to day football? What do the schedule makers have against, you know, sunlight?

So we ask, are the Golden Bears ready to play with the good teams as they insist?

Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. We can't help noticing their quarterback is freshman Jared Goff. Goff may be very good, but no one knows yet. He doesn't know and Sonny doesn't know and you don't know. That means we chalk up Goff as an unknown.

We can't help noticing the entire Bears team is young and inexperienced, and that may or may not mean something. We are not trying to be a downer. It's our job to point out these things.

Sonny Dykes, son of coach Spike Dykes — don't you love it? — is a curious hire for Cal considering the history of Bears football. He has no significant roots west of the Rockies and his whole demeanor is Southern.

That may be a good thing. He is a charming, entirely likable, folksy man with pure steel at his core.

And he runs the fastest offense you can imagine, guys dashing to the line of scrimmage boom boom boom and the quarterback barking out those signals and the center hiking the ball and the quarterback getting that sucker just like that and making his reads and throwing or handing off and the other team's tongues hanging out from sheer fatigue. And the whole thing happening again and again.

It exhausted me just writing that last paragraph. Call it speed writing.

Cal's offense will be fun and will resemble what they do up in Eugene, the Pac-12 becoming a super highway of speed, Maseratis blasting up and down the gridiron, vroom, vroom.

And Cal may or may not play defense. To be determined.

One other thing. After Northwestern, the Bears players, dear young men, play Ohio State, Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State, USC and Stanford. There are others but those stick out. Killer schedule. The schedule from hell.

This from Cal's media information department: "With a docket that features eight teams that played in bowl games a year ago, Cal faces a schedule that is ranked as the nation's third-most difficult by Phil Steele and No.4 in the country by The Sporting News."

Go get 'em, Sonny.

Now we leave the hype you may hear from Sonny and his players, and enter the world of realistic expectations. Realistic expectations are so lacking in glamour. So is most of life.

What are reasonable expectations for the Golden Bears?

First Reasonable Expectation: Sonny gets the academics in order.

We know, you expected the first expectation to be about football, the thing that happens on the field.

No. The first expectation is that football players go to class, study, learn and graduate.

This is the University of California, for heaven's sake, and students, faculty and alumni will not respect lack of academic integrity even if the team is a big winner.

Jeff Tedford got fired, sure, because he had trouble winning in his chosen sport and he seemed strangely detached. But the leverage he himself provided Cal to fire him was all about academics, even though he barely seemed to understand that. The Cal players — too many of them — had crummy grades and were not student-athletes. They were just athletes. Sonny needs to fix that ASAP or he doesn't belong in Berkeley.

Second Reasonable Expectation: Sonny puts butts in the seats at Cal's new Taj Majal in Strawberry Canyon. This would involve the Bears playing with enthusiasm and emotion and translating that to the crowd.

Face it, Stanford has cornered the market on college football in these parts. David Shaw is doing a great job — he is building on what Jim Harbaugh built, and that's quite something. Sonny is starting out at a big disadvantage.

Third Reasonable Expectation. OK, hold onto your hats — er, helmets. This one is about Cal's record. The Bears' schedule involves 12 games, a manageable number for our purposes.

Will Cal go 12-0?

Possible, but highly unlikely. We don't encourage you to bet the mortgage on that outcome.

How about 8-4?

Come on.

How about 6-6?

Could happen.

Here's the deal. If Sonny's team goes 5-7 and entertains the patrons and shows promise for the future, we should stand up and cheer, and give the new coach a major "atta boy."

Is that all we're asking, five measly wins?

You bet.

Realistic expectations can be such a drag.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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