But it also sends the team toward 2019 — with optimism for something bigger still but also questions about the unknown.
The Bears (7-5) and Horned Frogs (6-6) figure to engage in a low-scoring duel in the first meeting between the programs. The 40-point over-under betting line is the lowest among any bowl game this season.
Both teams feature stout defensive units, and both have dealt with uncertainty at quarterback.
But coach Justin Wilcox, who steered the Bears to a bowl game in his second season, says the outcome matters.
“The reason we do all of this is to win,” he said. “It’s kind of an exclamation point on the season and what it does for the underclassmen coming back. The entire season has a carryover effect in terms of the experiences we’ve had.”
Here are four key issues facing the Bears:
The quarterback quandary: TCU is down to its third-string quarterback after No. 1 Shawn Robinson and backup Michael Collins were injured, with Robinson subsequently announcing he would transfer to Missouri.
But fifth-year senior Grayson Muehlstein, who never had started a game for TCU, played well enough in season-ending wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State to get the Frogs bowl eligible.
Cal also is on its third quarterback, with redshirt freshman Chase Garbers having posted a 4-2 record the past six games as the starter. The offense hardly has been stellar, scoring 15 points or fewer in three of their past four games.
“I think it’s big,” Garbers said of playing in a bowl game. “A win definitely helps us for next year.”
Garbers said he’s not dwelling on his own status, but Cal signed UCLA transfer Devon Modster along with Arizona prep Spencer Brasch, who passed for 3,580 yards and 45 touchdowns this season.
Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin declined to confirm Garbers as the Bears’ future starter.
“I’d never talk about that right now,” Baldwin said last week. “Things happen. Things change. It’s a battle all the time.”
Bowl side benefits: As much as Wilcox wants a victory over the Horned Frogs, he acknowledges that the extra 12 practices the Bears got are a bonus that can provide lasting impact.
“A lot of the guys that were either red-shirting or didn’t play very many reps, they got almost a spring ball’s worth of reps,” he said. “That’s how you learn. The results should be invaluable.”
Change under way: The Bears will start just four seniors on offense and three on defense against TCU, but the roster already looks different than a month ago. Seven players — none of them starters — have announced plans to transfer, and senior wideout Vic Wharton III — the team’s leader with 50 catches — left the team.
One of the seniors who will face TCU is running back Patrick Laird, who needs 68 yards to join Marshawn Lynch and Russell White as the only Cal backs with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Finding a No. 1 back for next season will be a major offseason objective.
Redshirt sophomore cornerback Cam Bynum, an honorable mention All-Pac-12 pick, said he might seek an NFL draft evaluation, but has no plans to leave. “Big picture, I think I could use another year,” he said.
Defense not done: Led by linebackers Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver, whose 276 combined tackles are more than any FBS duo in the country, the Bears have become a force on defense.
They have scored five touchdowns on defense and are third in the Pac-12, allowing just 21.1 points per game. Kunaszyk, a senior, says this is just the beginning. He believes Cal can field a top-5 national defense next year and is aiming higher yet for his flamboyant teammate.
“I’m expecting Weaver to be the best linebacker in the nation,” Kunaszyk said.