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Expectations and Predictions: Time for Rick to Show Leadership, Return UCLA to the Path to Rebuilding

Fall camp kicks off this upcoming Monday and it's time to lay down our marker for this upcoming season.  We've already discussed how this squad projects on offense, defense, and special teams, and started going through each individual position (linebackers, defensive line, defensive backs, offensive line, and wide receivers/tight ends). Let's be realistic: this team has a lot of talent but it also has some issues. 

We have athletic, talented, disruptive defensive ends, yet are thin in the center of the defensive line.  We have an experienced defensive secondary, but lack leadership in the unit with the departure of Rahim Moore.  Our stable of running backs is stocked, yet our offensive line is thin, fragile, and a constant worry for every Bruin.  We have talented wide receivers, who seemingly lack focus, all with a revolving door at quarterback due to injury, ineffective offensive line play, or just poor decision-making at QB.

Ultimately, this all falls on Rick Neuheisel.  We're entering his fourth year at the helm in Westwood.  As we've discussed before, this is his "put-up or shut-up" season.  Last year, expectations were that the program would continue its upward trajectory, finish at least around 6-6 and be bowl eligible for a second straight season, with this being the year that the team was expected to run off between 8 and 10 wins, go to a decent bowl game, and finally reverse U$C's dominance in Southern California.

One year later, the expectation is the same: Rick Neuheisel, in his fourth year at the helm, should have the Bruins in the top half of the conference, winning between 8 and 10 games, make a legitimate challenge to the Pac-12 South crown, and end up in a decent bowl. Last year, the Bruins were to finally put together a decent, somewhat balanced offense, finally securing stability at QB with Kevin Prince making the pistol offense his own.

That's where this team should have been going into this season.

However, after last year's debacle, the Bruins have taken a huge step back, and the prediction is dramatically different: this squad will be fortunate to finish with six wins and squeak into a bowl.

Let's break down our expectations for this season versus the likely outcome of the season (i.e. predictions) after the jump.

Last year, we echoed the New York Times' Paul Myerberg's thoughts as our reasonable expectations for the 2010 season:

I may be in the minority, but I think we'll continue to see improvement from the Bruins in 2010. Will that reveal itself in the win column? With this schedule - the non-conference slate is jaw-dropping - perhaps not. That doesn't mean the Bruins won't be improved, nor does it mean the Bruins aren't a Pac-10 dark horse. They will be, and they are. Well, on that second point... it's a very dark horse. Still, I like the direction of the program under Neuheisel: last season illustrated that progress has been made, and there's little reason, despite some losses on defense, to expect any step back in 2010 . . . Can we put U.C.L.A. in the same breath as Oregon, U.S.C. and Oregon State when discussing potential Pac-10 champions? No,  not in 2010. But the Bruins are beginning to round into form, leading me to believe the future is bright.

As Nestor laid out in response to Myerberg's piece:

The key to success this season will be improving our position up the Pac-10 ladder. If that translates into a winning record during the conference season, that will give us more than enough to stay on the trajectory of methodical and gradual recovery we have been undergoing since CRN's arrival in Westwood.

In other words, we expected a team that at least remained about .500, went to a bowl game, but played competitive football and gave teams like Texas, Stanford, and U$C serious contests, all while moving up the Pac-10 ladder, and showing true signs that UCLA was rebuilding and getting back to the position it enjoyed before the program staggered and withered under Toledo and Dorrell.

Instead, the team imploded last year, struggling to 4-8 and getting embarrassed by Lamey's USB Trogans.

So, what are the expectations for this upcoming season?

For me, it's no different than it was one year ago.  I expect Neuheisel, in his fourth year in charge, to have us playing well and seriously contending to win the Pac-12 South, which translates into 8-4 to 10-2 by the season's end. The cupboard is no longer bare and this program is no longer Karl Dorrell's.  Yes, Rick was handicapped by Dorrell's inability to recruit offensive linemen consistently, but with three years to bring his players in, it's time for Neuheisel to produce.  Dorrell's failures bought Rick slack during the first two seasons, as we struggled to 4-8 and then 7-6.  Last year was 100% on Neuheisel.  Sure, you can lay blame at Chow's conservative playcalling, injuries, or Bullough's limp-wristed defense, but in the end, as the head coach, the buck stops with Rick.

In other words, Rick doesn't get a break on the expectations because his team fell flat on its face last year.

More importantly, I expect this UCLA team to pass the "Eye Test" that Nestor laid out earlier:

1) Is our defense prepared for each and every team we play?
2) Do we call offensive plays to catch our opponents off guard?
3) Do our players look like they know what they should be doing at all times?
4) Do our players play for 60 G-D minutes every game?
5) Do our players execute?
6) Do we have leaders on the field?

That's what I'm expecting out of this team.  I'll understand if they can't beat Stanford or Texas (or Oregon if they had ended up on the schedule this year), but I expect the defense to be prepared and not get embarassed, I expect to see a varied offensive attack, I expect to see our guys not make stupid mistakes (i.e. not getting the play calling in time, running the wrong route, getting defensive calls wrong), I expect the guys to play hard for the entire time and not give up by half time, I expect the guys to execute the plays called and be able to improvise if the opposing team counters, and I expect Kevin Prince, Johnathan Franklin, Kai Maiava, Tony Dye, and other juniors and seniors to assert real leadership on the field.

Now, for predictions, I don't realistic think that this team will win 8 to 10 games.  That's what I expect from Rick by his fourth year in charge, but I predict something very different.

Let's start with Myerberg's pretty reasonable prediction for the 2011 season:

I’m not optimistic. To me, this is where U.C.L.A. is slated to land: outside of bowl eligibility, in the five-win range, though I don’t think four is anywhere close to out of the realm of possibility. It all starts at the top, and Neuheisel’s hold on this ship is very, very unsteady. The whole program is unsteady; sure of what it wants to do offensively but lacking the pieces to really do so, talented on defense but still thin at some very key spots. So what is U.C.L.A. going to do? Rally together around a coach with a dim future and a staff full of new faces? That’s the only thing the Bruins can do if they wish to return to bowl play, but I’m not entirely sure if this staff is one that instills confidence with another tough schedule on the docket. This is basically the same team as a year ago, one that couldn’t beat a winning team and was often taken behind the woodshed during conference play. Houston and Texas will be much, much better, so a 2-1 mark outside of the Pac-12 will be more difficult to come by. When it comes to the Pac-12, I’m utterly unconvinced that the Bruins can score enough to keep pace with the teams on the schedule, and while the defense will be more aggressive I’m worried that it won’t be able to do enough to lead the Bruins to wins on its own. From top to bottom, I’m really not happy with the direction of the program as it currently stands: U.C.L.A. seems to be at best treading water, which is a troubling trend when compared to a conference full of teams on an upswing. Is there a silver lining? Of course. As mentioned earlier, another down season might lead to a coaching change, which I feel might be the best thing for the program. Now watch U.C.L.A. go 4-8 and Dan Guerrero decide to bring Neuheisel back for one more go.

It's hard to say that Myerberg's prediction isn't spot on.

I'm a bit more optimistic and I think 6-6 is more likely, if even just for the reason that Rick knows this is the end of the line for him and is more likely to gamble in situations (fourth and short, settling for FGs, etc.) that he played it safe last year.  I think being more aggressive wins him two more games and squeaks UCLA into a lower-tier bowl.

My bet?

Victories over Houston, San Jose State, Washington State, Arizona, California, and Colorado, with close losses to Texas, Oregon State, and U$C, and complete spankings at Utah, Stanford, and at home against Arizona State.

As a result, we squeak into either the Gilden New Mexico Bowl, MAACO Las Vegas Bowl, or Kraft Fight Hungry Bowl.  Not exactly the Rose Bowl, or hell, even the Holiday Bowl.  But 6-6 and a lower-tier bowl, while meeting the "Eye Test" gets Rick one more season and one more chance to make a serious run at the Pac-12 crown.

This is the season that this coaching staff and these players will need to show us some leadership.  No one expects or predicts that UCLA will shoot up into the national picture this season, but if Rick wants to keep his job, he needs to show us that the path he's taking us down will lead us back to national prominence. 

If they can't show Bruins everywhere that they can lead us back into the national picture, with a regular top-25 ranking, competing for Pac-12 titles, and a birth in the Rose Bowl, then it'll be time to look somewhere else and will bring a sad end to the promising, yet failed, Neuheisel era in Westwood.

Fire away with your thoughts in the thread, with your expectations, your predictions for this season, and other pre-season hopes and fears.