BERKELEY -- Cal coach Sonny Dykes isn't making any predictions for the 2014 season, but he does think there are tangible reasons for optimism.
Of course, it can't get much worse than a year ago, when on their way to a 1-11 record without a victory in the Pac-12 Conference, the Bears held the lead in their 11 games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents for a total of 9 minutes, 36 seconds.
"I didn't know it was that long," said Dykes, who endured the worst debut season of any Cal coach in history but managed to retain his sense of humor.
A year later, Dykes and his players expect more.
Every national publication and the conference media picked the Bears to finish last in the Pac-12 North, where three of their five rivals are preseason Top-25 teams. But the Bears are undaunted. They aren't interested in incremental improvement.
"I don't think we're taking a baby step this year," sophomore quarterback Jared Goff said. "People may say you need a few years of rebuilding. I don't believe in that at all. I think we're ready to do some great stuff."
"No one's expecting anything from us," said wide receiver Chris Harper. "People are going to be amazed."
Dykes, whose 20 years in college coaching provide him a greater perspective than his players, acknowledges the uncertainty. "I don't think any of us know."
But his memory needs to stretch only to last season to find two stunning turnarounds that offer encouragement.
"As bad as we were last year, it was pretty bad at Auburn and Missouri the year before last," Dykes said. "And those two teams played for the SEC championship last year."
Auburn, 3-9 in 2012 after a season-ending 49-0 loss to Alabama, transformed into a 12-2 team that won the SEC title and played in last season's national championship game. Missouri, 5-7 the year before, also finished 12-2 last season and won the Cotton Bowl.
"Things happen faster than people expect sometimes," Dykes said.
He has created believers among his players. "I think we can be a lot better than last year, definitely bowl eligible," senior safety Michael Lowe said.
How much improvement Cal makes will start with the team's health. Decimated by injuries last season, the Bears completed what Dykes called the most physical training camp he's been a part of. But they absorbed few casualties and welcome back four potential starters absent last fall when the defense allowed 45.9 points per game.
On offense, the line is stronger, the quarterback more experienced, the receiving corps talented and the backfield deeper. There is good reason to believe the Bears will be more productive than a year ago, when they averaged just 19.4 points in Pac-12 play.
Intangible improvements were just as critical in creating a culture shift in the program, Dykes said. "The biggest thing is it needed to be cool to be a good student, it needed to be cool to practice hard, it needed to be cool be a good guy."
He believes the program is moving in the right direction in all those areas.
Still looming is the question of how to avoid the weekly first-quarter sinkholes. After a competitive effort in a 44-30 season-opening loss to Northwestern, the Bears failed to generate a lead in nine of their remaining 10 games against FBS foes.
They dug themselves into those holes by surrendering 11 touchdowns of 25 yards or longer in the first quarter alone. Included were plays of 68, 75, 81 and 90 yards.
"Touchdowns shouldn't be that open. ... A lot of times we just beat ourselves," said safety Stefan McClure. By late in the season, he said, "We were real fragile, on edge about what's going to happen next, pretty beat up physically and emotionally.
"We really need to get off to a fast start in this first game so no one's like, 'Here we go again.' "
The Bears open against Northwestern once more, on Saturday in Evanston, Illinois. Harper believes a fast start is in the works. "I'm getting a whole new vibe," he said. "The energy is up every day."
A look at the schedule suggests the Bears had better come out of the gate quickly.
Their first five opponents (including FCS Sacramento State) posted a combined 28-34 record last season. Their final seven foes were 66-27. Beginning Oct. 11 against Washington, the Bears figure to be substantial underdogs in every game the rest of the season.
So must there be urgency to pocket some early wins?
It doesn't work that way, McClure said. "I used to look at the schedule, like these are the games we better win," he said. "Somebody asked me what I think our record is going to be. I was like, shoot, we just better be 1-0."
Dykes was cured of the temptation to map out wins and losses ahead of time after his second season as coach at Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs started 1-4, with five of the next seven on the road. At that point, Dykes envisioned being the underdog in five of them.
"We were not very good," he recalled. "I thought, 'We'll be lucky to win one.' We won seven."
Cal surrendered 181 first-quarter points a year ago, putting the Bears in a deep hole virtually every week. Here's a look at how Cal compares in that regard to two other recent woeful Pac-12 teams:
Season at a glance
Opening game: Saturday, at Northwestern, 12:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2
Key date: A win over Northwestern would be Cal's first over an FBS opponent under Sonny Dykes.
Difference makers: Bryce Treggs (77 catches in 2013) and Chris Harper (70) return to lead a receiving corps that should be the strength of the team.