Fall football camp is literally just around the corner, with our Bruins en route to San Bernardino and the first official practice kicking off this upcoming Wednesday. So, with the first year of the Jim Mora era in the books, it's time to take a look back at how things shaped up last season, and what we should expect from our program this season.
And let's make this crystal clear: expectations are what we believe the UCLA football program should achieve, whereas predictions are what ones believes will actually happen. For example, in Rick Neuheisel's final season in Westwood (2011), the expectation for his fourth season was that he would win 9-10 games, win the conference title, and have UCLA playing in the Rose Bowl. Obviously, the prediction, following a hugely disappointing 4-8 season in 2010, was much less. And since Rick failed to match those expectations, which called for an upward progression of the program, it was time for him to be let go, as much as it hurt to watch one of our own lose his self-professed dream job.
So, let's start with Jim Mora's first year in Westwood, which despite being in his first-year in college game, came with high expectations due to a very talented roster and a schedule tailor-made for a strong first year (with 7 home games, including the regular season ending games against Southern Cal and Stanford). Last year, we were looking for 9-10 total wins, including a win over Lane Kiffin's flailing Southern Cal squad:
We should expect Mora to go into the Southern Cal game with an 8 or 9 win team (which is improving through the season) and then ride the emotion of 70-80,000 Bruin fans in the Rose Bowl (it will be up to Chianti to make sure that he puts together an outreach/campaign plan so that we have that many fired up Bruins at the Rose Bowl) to get Bruins over the hump against Troy. That will be the only way Bruins can finally begin to undo the decade of damage inflicted on Bruin football tradition by Guerrero and rest of the incompetent leadership at UCLA.
In fact, college football guru Phil Steele called it back in July of last year, projecting our Bruins to end up playing in the Holiday Bowl (although he put Kansas State in San Diego as our opponent, instead of Baylor).
Overall, Mora delivered on the minimum expectations of bringing Westwood a total of 9 victories and a big win over Southern Cal. However, the season ended on a sour note, with back-to-back losses to Stanford, following by a blow-out beat-down at the hands of the Baylor Bears, leaving UCLA with a less-than-attractive 9-5 record for 2012.
And what of the coming year? Yes, the schedule's difficulty goes up, but despite that, Mora can demonstrate UCLA is on the upswing by winning another 9 games. It'd be difficult to expect the program to win 10+ in his second year, with a much more difficult schedule (away games at Stanford, Oregon, and Nebraska), but a return trip to the Holiday Bowl and 9 wins is a reasonable expectation. There's probably some flexibility in that number, with an 8-win season being acceptable, if UCLA plays the way it should: no blow-out losses, winning at home, taking the Pac-12 South again, beating Southern Cal, and finishing strong.
And it's not just UCLA fans who think at least 9 wins is a reasonable expectation for this season, with CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman slating the Bruins to improve:
From @BruCam87: UCLA has a much more difficult schedule next year. Will they be a better team next year yet with possibly a worse record?
I think UCLA should be better. The young, promising O-line, which started three freshmen and a sophomore, and obviously, a gifted, young, dynamic QB in Brett Hundley, are the biggest reasons. Also, getting stud OLB Anthony Barr (21 1/2 tackles for a loss) and leading tackler Eric Kendricks (149 tackles) back to spark the defense is big. The middle of the defense also is back. The secondary, though, is a concern.
The Bruins will also really miss standout RB Johnathan Franklin and big TE Joe Fauria. I'm told watch out for redshirt freshman RB Paul Perkins, a former sprinter from Arizona. "He's the real deal," one Bruin source told me this week. Shaq Evans blossomed this season and had almost 900 yards of receiving, and there are some other good young wideouts in the program.
Beyond the personnel, I think you have to factor in the added time spent with the Jim Mora regime by a program that has been energized by youth. Last year, at one point, the Bruins were starting nine freshmen, which, along with Mora's regime's more competitive persona, speaks to the new foundation in Westwood.
Think of it like a video game with variable difficulty settings. Last year, with a very forgiving schedule, Mora met our baseline expectations, landing 9 wins and beating Southern Cal. This year, he'll need to do the same, but we've turned the dial up from "easy" to "medium" difficulty. More road games, better teams (Oregon instead of Oregon State), and taking on Lane at the Coliseum. If Mora wants to show UCLA that he is the real deal and that UCLA is on the upward swing, he'll need to replicate last season's results on the higher difficulty setting.
So, for me, I'm marking it down as a 9 win season for Mora to be considered successful in meeting the minimum expectations for UCLA in his second season. Winning 9 games will almost certainly mean UCLA nabs the Pac-12 South title for a second-straight time under Mora, returns to the title game, and lands a spot in the Holiday Bowl.
Why is that important? Right now, UCLA does not have the top-end facilities and "wow factor" that programs like Oregon have (who are flush with Uncle Phil's Nike money), but UCLA does have a tradition of excellence (despite Chianti Dan and his regime of incompetent hacks thwarting success at every turn), is head-and-shoulders above every conference rival academically (except for Stanford and Cal), is located in Westwood (there is a lot to be said for the inherent recruiting advantages of being located in Southern California), and has all the taste of an "up-and-coming" program about to burst on the national scene. There is a lot of recruiting pull for Jim Mora right now, but that feeling that UCLA is a rising-star in college football will quickly disappear if the Bruins serve up a mediocre 6 or 7 win season and end of playing in the
Kraft Fight Hunger Who Gives a Fuck Bowl.
To continue on the upward swing, UCLA needs to pick up a solid season of 9 wins, a second consecutive win over Southern Cal (one victory over the Trojans means nothing; after all, even Karl Dorrell had 13-9), a return to the Pac-12 title game, and a trip back to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl.
In short, repeat last season's success on a harder difficulty setting.