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UCLA Pregame Guesses: Sun Bowl Edition

One last guesses post to finish off a fine season

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Van Morrison - It's all over now (baby blue) (via 009Trine)

(For the holidays, my sister-in-law asked me if there was anything I wanted and I named two things: a bottle of Booker’s and a book by Alan Light called "The Lonely and the Broken." She bought me both and now I’ve been enjoying a bit of really nice bourbon every evening while I read another chapter of the book. It’s about the song "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, which went from an obscure album cut on one of the more obscure albums released by Cohen (who has mostly had just a cult following his entire career) to a pop standard played at state ceremonies, weddings and funerals. I’m sticking to my claim that I liked the song way before it became at all popular because it plays over the credits of one of my favorite movies, Basquiat. That version is by John Cale, which is the version that Jeff Buckley was familiar with when he started performing the song. You’ll have to read the book for the rest. What does that have to do with anything? Well, the version of Bob Dylan’s "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue" performed by Van Morrison – this week’s video – is also on that soundtrack, which is actually worth owning, lots of good songs. I’m not sure that Dylan was thinking about the end of a UCLA football season when he wrote that song, in fact, I’m positive he wasn’t. But the title works and the melancholy version by Morrison captures my mood as the 2013 season comes to a close.)

Tomorrow is the last game of the season. I have to say, it’s the most fun I’ve had during a football season in so long – I can’t remember when. Long enough that my whole life is different the last time I felt this way. Somewhere in the last I-don’t-know-how-many-years, I spent a decade keeping my eye on UCLA football, but not truly immersing myself particularly committed to UCLA football.

It’s tough to explain. I definitely followed the program with my head and my heart. But maybe not both 100% of the time.

It was a combination of things. My kids went from kindergarten through college/high school during that time. My focus was on them. If it came down to going to or watching a UCLA game or coaching/going to one of their games, it was no choice. They came first and I have zero regrets about that decision. None at all.

But also, without putting too fine a point on it, from the end of the Toledo to basically this year it was a real gamble to invest too much in the UCLA football program because deep down you knew you were going to be disappointed. At least that’s how I felt. I just couldn’t totally commit because, bluntly, I wasn’t sure the program itself was totally committed.

I pledged a few weeks ago, I don’t know when exactly but a few posts ago, that I wouldn’t bring up the last two coaches anymore. I’ll stick to that pledge because I’m tired of dwelling in the past. I’ll just say that whether it was the choice of head coaches, the quality of the assistant coaches, the condition of the practice field, just whatever – I was never totally convinced that the program was itself totally committed. I thought it lived off of the fact that Southern California is a hotbed of talent and that the four letters were enough of a draw … and basically the program was good enough with no real idea of what it would take to be really great.

Maybe that approach got it done 20 or 30 years ago, when it was enough to be the conferences second best program. In the 80s. we had a ton of talent and we won plenty of games, but really we were never a threat to the very best teams in the country. And in the 2000s, we decoupled from the national picture altogether with a pair of "alumni coaches" who, I suppose, were a necessary step to convince the athletic department powers that be that they needed to think just a bit outside the box, at least, outside the family to be a relevant program in college football.

This season, things started to come together for me. My kids aren’t playing ball on Saturdays any more and a buddy of mine had a pregnant wife so he sold me the latter half of his season tickets. I managed to make it to all the home games for the first time in a long time. That investment of time was both a literal and metaphoric commitment by me in this team. For the first time in a long time I had the time to go to all the games and for the first time in a long time I thought it was worth my time to go to all the games because for the first time in a long time I thought the team was actually making a commitment worth my time.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a UCLA fan or just because I over think things, but I struggle sometimes with my desire to see the team win and my belief in Coach John Wooden’s definition of success. "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming," Coach Wooden wrote. As a fan, what do you make of that? With that as the criteria, were our prior coaches just as successful as the present coach? Did they do their best, under their circumstances? Was whatever success they had or didn’t have a by-product of their own best effort and in that sense, were they successful, despite the won-loss record?

I don’t know.

What separates Jim Mora from his predecessors, at least to me, are not just a few more wins, but his battle to change the internal status quo. You see, while his predecessors might have done their best on the field, I don’t think they moved the needle enough off the field. I feel they accepted things, maybe because they were insiders who had experienced the way "UCLA did things" as players. Or maybe it was because they hadn’t been enough other places to know any better. Or maybe it was because they knew this was their only or last shot to be head coaches so they chose the path of least resistance.

I don’t know.

I do know that the team just does things differently now. They practice different and they train different and the assistant coaches earn more money and because this staff is in demand outside the halls of the Morgan Center they’ve used their clout to change the way things are done in order to compete with programs around the country.

Regardless of the won-loss record, they’ve done enough to earn my support going forward and I don’t regret one second of the time I invested in the team this season.

That investment, of course, includes the time I spend writing these posts, which are winding down for the year. I might do one more around signing day, but other than that we’re going to put Pregame Guesses on the shelf until spring and then again until the fall. I think this is the seventh season I’ve done Pregame Guesses, or maybe the sixth. Either way, it’s been a while. The first season went south so fast, that I gave up writing Guesses halfway through. The second season we tried to actually keep track of who guessed best, but gave up halfway through (even though I finished the season writing the posts). I noticed that in the early days the posts were funnier, or at least, I tried to be funny. I spent more time looking at the opponents and trying to have a laugh at their expense. I don’t know when it evolved, but it feels more natural now – just write from the heart and see if anyone gets it or not.

All that said, I’m going into tomorrow with a sense of sadness. I really like this team. I’m going to miss this team and I’m going to remember this team. I’m going to remember it for Anthony Barr’s senior year. I’m going to remember Jordan Zumwalt’s senior year. I’m going to remember that we beat the teams we were supposed to beat, lost to a couple of teams that were probably better than us and that we played a shitty first half against a good Arizona State team and that one’s going to taste bitter for a while.

I’m going to remember beating SC for the second year in a row.

But, mostly, I’m going to remember that this team lived up to Coach Wooden’s definition of success. I believe that this team has peace of mind, because win, lose or draw, it did the best it could.

Which brings us to tomorrow.

I feel we will win the game. Not because I don’t respect Virginia Tech or the many fine teams they’ve fielded over the years. I just think this wasn’t one of their better teams. They finished in the middle of the pack in an ACC conference that wasn’t particularly strong this year, other than Florida State. We have the better record against the better schedule. That’s why I feel we are going to win.

I’m going to leave it at that. I just deleted a whole section on our quarterback’s impending decision, but it just didn’t work with the rest of the post. As important as it is, Brett Hundley’s decision is just a detail. In the long run and in the big picture, I’m cool with the direction of the program and that doesn’t change with tomorrow’s final score or depend on what Hundley decides to do.

Thanks for responding to these posts all season.

And, with that, here are your Pregame Guesses, Sun Bowl Edition:

  1. What number will be higher: UCLA's total rushing yards in the game or Brett Hundley's passing yards at halftime?
  2. Name a defensive player other than Myles Jack who gets either a carry or a pass catch tomorrow.
  3. True or False: UCLA scores four touchdowns tomorrow.