The temperatures have been slowly on the rise, the sun is out for longer, and with spring in the air, the temporary return of football is just around the corner, with UCLA's spring football practices beginning on Tuesday, April 1. It's been a busy off-season for the Bruins, who were coming off a big 42-14 thumping of Virginia Tech on New Year's Eve in the Sun Bowl, and now have some solid recruiting momentum going into the 2014 season, having locked in a solid recruiting class, plus snagging the verbal commitment of 2015's top QB in Josh Rosen.
All signs point to things on the upswing for UCLA. So, it's time to for us to figure out what we can reasonably expect of our football team this upcoming year. And just because there are always people who can't figure this out: 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.
As for Mora, he's met the minimum expectations in both seasons he's been in charge. In this first season (2012), we laid down the marker for a 9-win season, including a solid win over Southern Cal. And while the season ended on a sour note, Mora did meet those minimum expectations in his first season:
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.
Going into his second season (2013), with a much harder schedule, the minimum expectation for Mora's second season was to pick up 9 wins, beat Southern Cal again, and return to the Pac-12 title game as the South Division champs. While UCLA ceded the South Division crown to Arizona State, Mora otherwise met those expectations. However, despite ending the season with a big 42-14 beat-down of Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl, the season felt underwhelming and one of loss opportunity:
While Mora met some of the minimum expectations we laid out at the beginning of the season, we failed to win the Pac-12 South and return to the title game. So while, we grabbed 10 wins, beat Southern Cal, and smashed Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl, it felt like UCLA football didn't so much take a huge leap forward in Mora's second year, but more like treading water. It certainly wasn't a regression, but it didn't represent the leap forward into the national elite we had hoped for.
So, this of course begs the question of what UCLA fans should reasonable expect of Mora in his third season in charge in Westwood. As discussed following this most recent National Signing Day:
It's Pac-12 championship and a trip to the college playoff or bust, especially with Heisman candidate Brett Hundley returning for one last shot at collegiate glory. It'll be up to the staff to make sure that an elite season on the field translates into an elite season on the recruiting trail as well. It may sound greedy, but if UCLA wants to play big-boy football, then it's time we start demanding excellence across the board (it's probably help if we could jettison that fat, lazy oxygen thief named Chianti Dan Guerrero, but I digress).
And what exactly does that mean? For Jim Mora's third year in Westwood to be considered a success, he'll need to meet a minimum expectation of producing at least 10 wins, including a total win over Sarkisian's Southern Cal, and not only a return to the Pac-12 title game, but UCLA needs to come away as the Pac-12 champs, which will mean either a spot in the inaugural college football playoff or a top-tier former-BCS-level type bowl. Yes, I'll repeat that: Jim Mora's team should win the Pac-12 conference title this year.
How did 10+ wins and a conference title become the minimum reasonable expectation in only Mora's third year? Well, as we've discussed before, Mora came into a UCLA program that was stocked with talent (Rick Neuheisel might not have been able to coach, but he was the one who recruited and landed a lot of our top tier key talent, including a certain starting QB), so the program was primed for a big, fast turn-around. But more importantly, there are two key factors: (1) the quality and depth of this year's squad and (2) an extremely favorable schedule (which could have been more favorable had Chianti Dan not scheduled a "neutral" game against Texas in Arlington, Texas).
First, this UCLA team might be one of the, if not the, most talented teams in the nation. It's certainly the best UCLA team, at least on paper, we've had in the past two decades of wandering the football desert of mediocrity. Key to this team is the return of Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley, who is a projected first-round NFL draft pick, and a special talent and leader. Without Hundley, this team should be looking at 9+ wins and winning the Pac-12 South. With a QB that is both talented and experienced leading the team, that should take UCLA into not just the Pac-12 conference title conversation, but the four-team college football playoff conversation. And the talent just doesn't end with Hundley - as we've mentioned in our offensive, defensive, and special teams depth chart reviews, there is a wealth of top-tier talent at Mora's disposal - from a deep and talented offensive line, to a scary-good linebacker corps (Myles Jack and Company), and an excellent special teams unit (coverage squad was amazing last year), UCLA has the pieces to make a serious run at being a contender this year.
Second, the schedule is set up very nicely for the Bruins. UCLA opens the season on the road in Charlottesville against a Virginia squad coming off a 2-10 season (with one of those wins coming over Div. 1-AA VMI, which barely counts). Our home opener is against a Memphis squad that went 3-9 in 2013, so the first two weeks should not only be big wins, but the kind of games where end-of-the-year award contenders can really stuff their stat sheets. Mora's first "test" will be against Texas at a "neutral" site game in the House that Jerry Jones Built in Arlington. Fortunately, Texas is not the powerhouse we've seen before - and if Rick Neuheisel can go into Austin and whip the Longhorns, then Jim Mora should be able to beat the Horns anywhere in Texas. There's 3 wins right there. In our conference slate, we get Oregon, Stanford, and Southern Cal at the Rose Bowl this year, which will be a massive boost for us. With the exception of our conference opener in Tempe, every Pac-12 road game for the Bruins this year is a laugher: we travel to Berkeley (LOLOLOL), Colorado (LOLOLOL Part II), and Washington. If we lock it down at home, we should be going into the final regular season game against Stanford in Pasadena with 10 wins. In short, the schedule is certainly much more favorable this year than last year.
We're no longer looking for "next year" - this is the year for UCLA football to take the step into being a nationally elite team. The pieces are in place for the Bruins to make a serious run at winning the conference and playing in the inaugural college football playoff. So mark it down: 10+ wins, a solid win over Southern Cal, and UCLA's first conference title since 1998. If we do those things, a slot in the inaugural college football playoff is sure to be ours for the taking.
2014 - it's the Year of the Bruin. It's time for Mora to step UCLA up to the national elite. Anything else will be squandering one of the best opportunities for UCLA in a very long time.