The UCLA football team is 2-2 at this point in the season and the sky is falling all around Bruin-land. Well, okay that may be a bit of an exaggeration. But, after UCLA’s blowout loss at Palo Alto Saturday night, it is close to the way some feel. The question then must be asked: What did you think was going to happen?
Where Is UCLA Football?
If the faithful could remove their Bruin Blue sunglasses for this conversation, they could be asked to take a look at the first four games on the schedule and down it with a glass of reality. You had to know UCLA was never going to the college football playoffs, right? I mean sure you can wish for it, but that does not make it so. There was nothing in UCLA’s immediate future that said they could compete with the Alabamas or Clemsons of the world for one of the four CFP spots.
The Bruins were having to replace six starters on defense, none the least of which were Eddie Vanderdoes and Takk McKinley, both currently residing on NFL rosters. If there is one thing UCLA has struggled with for six or seven years, it is sufficient depth. The offense was getting its third coordinator in three years. While the pro-style offense was going to get tweaked, there was little, beyond mere hope, to assume it would be drastically better than last year’s group.
The schedule was not going to do UCLA any favors. If you follow football beyond the Pac 12, you had to know that anything better than 2-2 at this point was possible, but not very likely. Texas A&M was a game that many fans had circled after last year’s loss in College Station. Seriously though, the Aggies lost tons of talent off last year’s team. They had to run a pretty pedestrian offense early on. The only real surprises were the UCLA defense giving up so many yards and that it took a comeback of historic proportions to get the win.
Hawaii was a given. They are not even likely to still be able to fund a football program in another two to three years.
Memphis was always going to be the real trip up game. Sure, they are not even in a Power Five conference and it could be easy to overlook them. But, if you are fortunate enough to watch as many unruly hours of college football as we do here, you knew this was the type of team that was going to be a nightmare for the UCLA defense. The Tigers have a physical quarterback with a strong arm and they run a very balanced offense. UCLA had its best game of the season on offense, winning every statistical category, but the Bruins defense gave up huge chunks of yards at critical times in the game. They could not shut down Memphis when it mattered most.
Of course, the Memphis game also brought out the Josh Rosen critics. He threw two interceptions, one of which was actually his fault. That brought out the, “Josh makes bad decisions at critical times,” crowd. Their points were not without merit and even Rosen took the blame for the game itself. But running up 633 points of offense and scoring 45 points needs to be enough to win most games.
That brings us to Stanford. I wrote last week that if ever there was a time UCLA had a chance to end Stanford’s winning streak, this was the season to do it. Notice, I never said they would. Stanford has become a helmet game for UCLA. Head coach Jim Mora restructured his offense two years ago to be more physical to match up with Stanford. He admitted the fact that he has not beaten them in his tenure in Westwood gnaws at him. And when the streak continues each year, the game starts to eat into the UCLA psyche. Players, coaches, and fans alike spend game week talking less about on-field components and more about how Stanford has dominated the rivalry for nearly a decade.
UCLA kept it close for a half. But, when the opponent’s running back goes into the game with more yards rushing than your entire offense, you have to know it is an uphill struggle. When said running back gets 268 of the teams 405 yards rushing, you are not going to win. But that is looking at it postmortem. Even looking at it in advance, while it was UCLA’s best chance in years to be Stanford, it still was never a good chance.
That bring us to the here and now. While everyone “hoped” for better, vision without the blue sunglasses always said 2-2 was likely. The Bruins now face a Colorado team with a very good running back in Phillip Lindsay, but it is a game UCLA should win. Down the road, they have a resurgent Oregon program, a Washington team that is the odds-on favorite to win the Pac 12 North, a very physical Utah team, and of course, USC. For all the talk of how “anything can happen in that game,” the defensive line for the Trojans dominated a Stanford offense that just went wild on UCLA. Call it stretching the transitive properties all you want, but UCLA is not in a place to physically match up with USC in the trenches right now.
Going through all the analysis always meant that a 7-5 regular season was the reality with 8-4 being a euphoric over-achievement. A 3-4 game improvement over last year’s disgrace is as good as anyone should expect based on what is there.
Why Only Middling Success?
UCLA is fortunate to have a generational quarterback in Rosen. Players with his ability and moxy do not come along all the time, and yet UCLA has had two in a row (Brett Hundley). It will be a shame if he does not get to be at the helm of a better team. UCLA also has some amazing young talent at a few positions. Jaelan Phillips and Darnay Holmes are going to be amazing to watch for three years. What UCLA doesn’t have is that same caliber player behind them. Mora has good recruiting classes with a few great players. He has not had great recruiting classes.
At SEC Media Days, Alabama coach Nick Saban said the Tide do not reload every year like people think. He said they rebuild. They look at the highly recruited talent that sat on the bench and is now coming back, ready to start. Then they look at who else they have coming in and restructure their offense and defense accordingly. True, it is a luxury not a lot of teams have. But the ones that do are the ones still in the running for the holy grail of elite bowl games. UCLA is not in that neighborhood yet and expecting them to be so is just going to give you heartburn each week.
With every loss comes the call for the heads of the coaching staff on a platter. Let’s address it. There is no pattern in UCLA football history for the last 10 years that leads anyone to think defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is going to be kicked out mid-season. At most, Mora might put more of his personal focus on the defense, for whatever that is worth. Short of another 4-8 season, Mora is not going anywhere either. Depending on which source you believe, his contract has anywhere from a $10-$12 million buyout. His boss, Dan Guerrero, is nearing retirement, and does not want the firing of a fourth head football coach to be on his professional tombstone.
What helps the angst looking forward is accepting some sensibility. The refs, the Pac 12, and the horrible TV announcers did not cost UCLA the Stanford game, or any other game this season. There have been bad calls. They happen in every game in the country every week. Just the way it goes. Accept that UCLA is in position to be top two or three in the Pac 12 South each year with an occasional run at the divisional title. Yes, I know the Bruins were once in line to play for the national title but that was 19 years ago. The college football landscape has changed and UCLA has not. Enjoy the tailgate, and get the most out of the wins. Don’t let the losses ruin your Sundays as there are plenty more Sundays and losses to come.