Yesterday, with fall football camp just around the corner (literally just a few days away), we discussed the expectations for 2013 and UCLA football fans should have high hopes for the program, with Mora having delivered on the minimum expectations in 2012 (landing us 9 wins, defeating Southern Cal, winning the Pac-12 South, and going to the Holiday Bowl), UCLA should repeat last year's successes, despite a more difficult schedule and needing to replace Jet Ski and Fauria on offense.
So, what does this all mean for UCLA football's long-term outlook? What should we expect from Jim Mora's football program in the future?
With a roster stacked with talent, a very favorable schedule, and a lack of elite competition in the Pac-12 South, 2012 was primed for Mora to make a splash in his first year. After running off a 9-2 record featuring a big win over Nebraska, a beat-down of Arizona, and a win over Southern Cal, Mora looked to not only meet the minimum expectations for 2012, but smash through them. But a pair of losses to Stanford (including a heart-breaking 3 point loss to Stanford in the rain-soaked title game) and a total let-down beat-down by Baylor to end the year left the year with a mixed taste. Still, it was the first step on what UCLA fans will hope to be an upward progression of the football program.
In his second year in charge, as discussed at length yesterday, the reasonable expectation for Jim Mora's program in 2013 is that the Bruins will repeat last year's success, but on a higher difficulty setting. Taking the second step forward toward a return to national prominence will require another 9 win season, another win over Southern Cal, and a return to both the Pac-12 title game and the Holiday Bowl. While we all hope for a 10+ win season, a Pac-12 conference title, and a return to the Rose Bowl, for where the program is, that would be a marked over-achievement, but one that we'd all take.
So, assuming Jim Mora can replicate last year's success (which, as of now, is an unknown, given his overall career record and lack of prior college experience -- remember, Rick Neuheisel seemed to have UCLA heading the right direction at the end of his second season (2010), before a huge regression in his third year), what does that mean for UCLA entering Mora's third season (2014) and beyond?
If things go according to plan, the reasonable expectation for UCLA in Mora's third season would feature at least 10 wins, including a win over Southern Cal (who will probably have a new head coach in 2014, as I doubt Kiffin will do enough to placate Pat Haden and the Trojans' football-crazed fan-base in 2013), a Pac-12 conference title, and a return to the Rose Bowl.
First, consider that the non-conference schedule features an away trip at Virginia (which should be a solid win), a home game against Memphis (which should be an easy win), and a de facto away game (despite Chianti Dan's bullshit claim of scheduling a "neutral" site game) against the Texas Longhorns at Jerry Jones' Cowboys Stadium. Considering UCLA's past track record of success in Texas, I like our chances, especially if Mora can convince Hundley to stick around for his redshirt junior season. We'll have to take on Cal in Berkeley, but in Sonny Dykes' second season, Mora should be able to finally break UCLA's inability to play smart football in the People's Republic of Berkeley, but we'll get Stanford at the Rose Bowl, Oregon at the Rose Bowl, the Trojans at our house, with the rest of the Pac-12 South slate not presenting any real scary challenges (depending on how Arizona State shapes up this season).
Second, our roster projects very well in the 2014 season. Yes, super stud OLB Anthony Barr will be gone (along with Cassius Marsh, Jordan Zumwalt, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Seali' Epenesa, and Stan McKay) on the defensive side of the ball. Likewise, UCLA will no longer be able to count on Shaq Evans' dependable hands or Damien Thigpen's flash on the offensive side of the ball. Depending on how 2013 goes and how well Mora can recruit Hundley to stay, we may have a new QB under center (but I think the odds are that Hundley stays for his redshirt junior season as his final year). But that's it. Our offensive line will be intact (XSF is also likely to leave early, but if not, will be a true senior in 2014), with Brendel, Goines, and White (all 2012 starters) all returning as juniors, with plenty of young talented depth (Benenoch, Lopez, Cyburt, Moala, Lacy, Quessenberry, Redmond, not to mention the less-heralded Wysocki, Morris, and Hulick). Our backs (Perkins, James, Lee, Manfro) and receiving corps (Fuller, Payton, Ortiz, Walker, Lucien, Massington, Duarte, plus newly committed Roberts and Lasley) will be mostly back and more experienced. On the defensive side of the ball, our young (but talented) secondary will all be much more experienced (which hopefully translates into much improved), with Rios (maybe), Adams, Moreau, Goforth, Goodman, Willis, and Foreman slated to take big roles. The front-seven will be intimidating, with Vanderdoes, Fitts, McCarthy, Tuliaupupu, and Clark along the DL, and Kendricks (assuming he doesn't leave early for the NFL), Porter, Savaiinaea, Judge, Jack, Iese, Orjioke, and Castro all roaming behind them in the LB corps. Considering the pieces that Mora will have to work with in 2014, UCLA's roster projects to be one of the most loaded in 2014, especially if there are no early defections to the
No Fun National Football League.
Depending on whether Hundley stays for a senior season or not, this could be the break-out year for UCLA football. If Mora meets expectations and continues to lead UCLA on an upward trajectory, if Hundley stays for a shot to win the big one, 2015 should be the year that UCLA football becomes a major national player in college football. 10 wins will be the bare minimum expected of Mora in a year that features a very favorable schedule, with Oregon State and Washington State on tap (in lieu of the Ducks and Huskies), plus a non-conference schedule that features Virginia at the Rose Bowl (solid, easy win), a trip to Vegas against UNLV (another solid win), and the tough-but-beatable Nevada at the Rose Bowl. Our Pac-12 slate will give us games against Colorado, Cal, and Arizona State at home. There's six projected wins right there (regardless of how strong Cal or Arizona State comes on under their new coaches, if UCLA wants to be a national player again, you have to hold serve at the Rose Bowl, regardless of the competition). That leaves UCLA needing 4 wins against Stanford, Oregon State, Washington State, Arizona, Southern Cal, and Utah, which should be do-able for a program on the upswing, especially if Hundley is under center as a fifth-year senior QB.
Assuming Hundley leaves Westwood for the NFL, 2015 won't be the break-out party we all would love to see, but it should feature at least 9 wins, a trip to the conference title game, and at least a trip to the Holiday Bowl. Yes, that would seem like a step back on paper, but breaking in a new QB changes the dynamic somewhat. Right now, the QB picture behind Hundley is muddled, which is the biggest mark against Mora's recruiting so far. Landing Kyle Allen in the Class of 2014 would have dramatically changed that outlook, but right now, who takes over following Hundley is a bit of an unknown, with Woulard the more Hundley-like option and Millweard the more traditional Mazzone-style (think Brock Osweiler) QB.
The fifth year of the Mora regime (and the final year of his current contract) will have an expectation that is the opposite of 2015, depending 100% on what happens in 2015 with the QB situation. Even elite programs (well, except for the football machine that is Saban's Alabama) need to re-load with a good, but not spectacular, season (LSU last season, Oregon in 2011, Oklahoma the last two years, etc.), and if UCLA can attain that national player status it hasn't had since that fateful date with Edgerrin James and the Hurricanes in 1998, then either 2015 or 2016 would be our re-loading year.
What exactly does that mean?
If Hundley leaves after the 2014 season, then in 2015, Mora would be expected to win 9 games, get to the conference title game, and return to the Holiday Bowl, with a brand-new QB (likely Woulard or Millweard) under center for the first time during the 2015 season. If that's the case, then 2015 would be the build-up year to a national break-out year for UCLA in 2016 (the type we would expect if Hundley sticks around for his senior year in 2015). With Hundley gone in 2015, then 2016 would feature the new UCLA QB in his second full season as a starter, a very favorable non-conference schedule (at Rutgers, home against UNLV, and at Nevada), a home game against Stanford, and another year of playing the Beavers and Cougars instead of the Ducks and Huskies. Add it all up, and you should reasonably expect UCLA, in Mora's fifth year, to be picking up at least 10 wins, snagging the conference title, and returning to the Rose Bowl for the second time in three years (assuming 2014 goes according to plan).
If Hundley sticks around after what should be a conference winning, Rose Bowl berth 2014 season, then his redshirt senior season in 2015 should be very exciting for UCLA fans. But, the flip side is that 2016 would be a year that the Bruins would be breaking in a brand-new QB, in which case, the expectations would be tapered down to 9 wins, a conference title game appearance, and a trip to the Holiday Bowl, with 2016 serving as the build-up year to an elite 2017 season (and a contract extension and raise for Mora, assuming Chianti Dan doesn't find a way to fuck it up).
The overall health of UCLA football has been terrible for the last decade-plus. Ever since Edgerrin James single-handedly smashed UCLA hearts in 1998, the Bruins have never recovered, which is no surprise since Chianti Dan has been in charge at Morgan Center for almost that entire period. Our inept athletic director's third football hire is the best hope UCLA currently has to return to national prominence, with Mora meeting the minimum expectation in 2012. You'll notice that these projections don't demand a national title, or necessarily a win in the Rose Bowl. The road back to the national elite status we had in 1998 (people often forget that the very first #1 team in the BCS standings when it debuted was our very own Bruins) is not going to be traveled in a single season. But, if UCLA football follows an upward trajectory on each successive season, then we can reasonably expect these projected results during Mora's 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons.
In short, it all means Mora has to replicate last season's success on a harder difficulty setting this season, which will set UCLA perfectly for an elite, conference title winning, Rose Bowl berth season in 2014 or 2015. If UCLA football fans are willing to demand the excellence that we expect from UCLA (this is the school of 109 national titles, after all), then this is the bare minimum road-map we should be following over the life of Mora's five-year contract.
Let's see if Mora can get it done.