I would like to posit a question/theory that addresses how the team can look good against Houston and Texas but look bad against Cal and Stanford.
The answer lies in something Ohio State head coach Jim Tressell said. A few years back when Ohio State played Texas, they beat them 24-7 and people asked him how they could handle a team like Texas relatively easily and then Big 10 teams who weren't as good would play them close.
Tressell said something along these lines: Playing Texas meant playing kids his kids rarely saw and vice versa. (In truth they had played the year before but that's not what he meant). This made the game quite emotional and exciting for both teams and this made for one type of game. But playing teams in conference were different. Rather than the mystery of playing a non-conference team, you faced the familiar -- you lined up against players you'd been lining up against sometimes for two three four years -- sometimes since you were in high school. With the mystery, you never knew what would happen, you might intimidate the other team based on rep or hype. But there was no such thing with conference opponents. Even weaker teams like Indians were not intimidated by the Buckeyes. Even if they were going to lose, they didn't fear them. They might lose, they might lose big, but they weren't afraid.
I've been thinking about Tressel's theory and UCLA football. We beat a couple of non-conference teams, both good teams though maybe not as good as we thought they were when we played them, but we get hammered by conference foes. I know we're not Ohio State, we don't intimidate teams. But maybe something else is a factor? With Houston and Texas their coaches probably spent the week reminding their players that UCLA could beat them, they built us up so that those teams wouldn't overlook us after Stanford Their players didn't know ours, so they believed their coaches and when we came to play they assumed we were good. Cal and Stanford are different. I'm sure their coaches reminded their players not to overlook us, but their players know our players. They weren't worried. They'd beaten us before and many of their guys had faced our guys all the way back to high school.
When Terry Donahue was the head coach way back when, we had trouble with some of our non-conference teams, but we could handle the conference teams. (Yes, a lot of the good conference teams these days were doormats in those days.) Now, we beat the non-conference teams (who didn't know any better) but we struggle with the conference teams.
I would guess the next steps for our team is to start beating our conference opponents.
Anyone have any thoughts on this?