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UCLA Football: Jim Mora Should Win Pac-12 Championship by Fifth Season

After a disappointing campaign in Jim Mora's third season in Westwood - what many tabbed as UCLA's break-out season to win the conference and earn a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff - we take a look at some other top-tier coaches and try to assess where UCLA should be within the next two years.

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This was supposed to be the year.  The season where it was supposed to all finally came together for UCLA - led byBrett Hundley, a first-round NFL Draft quality redshirt junior QB, an offensive line with both talent and depth, and a defense stocked with talent - and yet, we find ourselves in exactly the same position as the year before: 9-3 at the end of the regular season, unable to beat Oregon, unable to beat Stanford, watching the Pac-12 conference title game from home, and waiting to find out which second- or third-rate bowl we'll be shuffled off to.  Don't get me wrong - there are a lot of other college football programs who would love to be in our position.  But let's be honest: this season fell short of where a lot of people, both inside and outside the program, expected us to be.  Rewind back to the beginning of the season and the goal and expectation was pretty consistent - win the conference and make it to a top-tier bowl - both in the mainstream media, throughout social media, and online communities in the UCLA-iverse.

So, yeah, we fell flat and now the Mora apologists are coming out in droves to make excuses for this year's disappointment - and you could get the sense that Mora himself is in a bit of damage control mode when you mull over his comment bringing up the 50-0 loss to Southern Cal that ended Neuheisel's reign in Westwood.  First, let's get something straight: no one here is prepared to call time on the Jim Mora era.  He's a good coach, he's got UCLA into the national conversation, and you can see evidence of culture change in the program (although inconsistency and mental softness is big games continue to be a major problem).  There is still questions about whether or not he has plateaued as a coach - is he really "the guy" the get us from where we are now - a very good, but not great program - to where we all want to be - an elite program that is winning the conference on a somewhat regular basis with the occasional big push for the playoff?  No one is saying he needs to build us into Nick Saban's Alabama, but there's no reason that UCLA shouldn't be the odds-on favorite to win the Pac-12 South every season.  Colorado is a disaster, Utah is a good program with a great coach that gets a lot out of them - but no one will mistake the Utes for the next coming of LSU, Arizona is beatable (we know, we've done it), it's only a matter of time before Todd Graham bails on Arizona State for a higher-profile job, and Southern Cal is led by Seven Eight Win Steve.  The division is there for the taking, and that's not even taking into account all of the natural recruiting advantages that UCLA has over our division foes.

But the refrain we keep hearing over and over again is that Mora hasn't had "enough time" to build UCLA into the program he's capable of.   Maybe that's true - maybe he will need a full five years to win a conference title, but as a point of illustration, let's look at how other notable or top-tier college football coaches have fared in their first five seasons on the job at their respective schools.

  • Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin: we've used Alvarez as a comparison because he's universally loved in Madison and the Badgers, their university, and football culture have a lot of similarity to UCLA (a lot of close, but not quite great seasons).  In his first five years at Wisconsin (and Alvarez inherited a program in total disarray), Alvarez posted a 28-27-1 record.  The first season was a terrible 1-10 season, so that really skews the number, but in his fourth year, the Badgers went 10-1-1, won the Big-10, won the Rose Bowl, and finished ranked #5 and #6 in the two major polls.
  • Urban Meyer, Florida: Urban is simply one of the, if not the, best college football coach in the country.  In Meyer's first five years at Florida (when he took over from the failed Ron Zook regime, Meyer had only four years of college head coach experience - two at Bowling Green and two at Utah, and none in a power conference) he posted a 57-10 record, won the SEC title three times, and won two national championships (in his second and fourth seasons).  Meyer almost made it three national titles in his fifth year, but his Gators came up a bit short, going 13-1, winning the Sugar Bowl, and finishing the year ranked #3 in both major polls.
  • Urban Meyer, Ohio State: Urban inherited a program scarred by the Jim Tressel scandal and coming off a year of an inexperienced, interim head coach.  This is his third season, and he's managed to post a 35-3 record with the Buckeyes, played in one BCS bowl game, and is playing today for the conference title (and possibly the fourth spot in the College Football Playoff).
  • Bob Stoops, Oklahoma: when Stoops arrived in Norman, the Sooners had finished a run of three consecutive seasons with at least 8 losses under former head coach John Blake.  Stoops got things turned around fast - in his first five years, he put up a 55-11 record, won the Big-12 title twice, won 2 out of 3 BCS bowl games, and won a national championship (in just his second season in charge).  In his fifth year, the Sooners went 12-2, with the second loss being in the Sugar Bowl, and finished #3 in both major polls.
  • Steve Spurrier, Florida: the "Head Ball Coach" came to Florida following mediocre 7-5 seasons for two years prior.  In his first five years, Spurrier had a 54-12-1 record, won the SEC title three times, andmade the Sugar Bowl three times (winning it once).  In his fifth season, Spurrier went 10-2-1, won the SEC, lost in the Sugar Bowl, and finished ranked #7 in both major polls.  His only national championship would come two years later, in his seventh season in charge.
  • Mark Richt, Georgia: Richt inherited a program in decent health when he took over, so the comparison isn't exact, but in his first five seasons in Athens, Richt went 52-13, winning the SEC title twice, made it to two BCS bowls (winning one).  In his fifth season, the Bulldogs went 10-2, won the SEC, and lost in the Sugar Bowl, finishing the year ranked #10 in both major polls.
  • Dabo Swinney, Clemson: Swinney took over mid-season in 2008 when Tommy Bowden resigned, so we're excluding that half-season since he didn't start the year as the head coach and those interim head coach seasons are worthless for the most part (for example, Ed Orgeron looked like he had half-a-brain during his interim season at Southern Cal, when we know from his 10-25 tenure at Ole Miss that he's a complete idiot).  Swinney went 47-20 in his first five full seasons in charge, won the ACC in his third season, played in the Orange Bowl twice, and in his fifth year, went 11-2, just missed out on the ACC conference title (thanks to those guys from Florida State), and won the Orange Bowl, finishing the year ranked #7 and #8 in the two major polls.

When you look at these comparisons, you'll see that every single one of these coaches has won the conference title in their first five seasons in charge.  Whether it was the Big-10, Big-12, ACC, or SEC, every single one of these guys did it - so the conference strength really isn't as big of a factor as people make it out to be.  Of course, we could also run the numbers for David Shaw (won the conference in his second and third seasons) and Chip Kelly (who won the conference in his first three seasons in charge, ending an eight-year drought for the Ducks) but given that both of their programs were built-up and in prime position for an elite run, that's not exactly a fair comparison.

So, let's talk about two coaches who have managed to win this conference and inherited a program in a bit of a mess.

  • Bob Toledo, UCLA: Oh yes, we're going there.  When Toldeo took over in Westwood, he inherited a UCLA program that was led by the man who defined mediocrity in Westwood - Terry Donahue.  In the two years prior to Toledo taking over, the Bruins went 5-6 and 7-5 (losing in the Aloha Bowl) to bring an appropriately mediocre end to Donahue's mediocre career.  In his first five years in charge in Westwood, Toledo posted a 35-28 record, won the conference twice (in his second and third seasons), won the Cotton Bowl, appeared in (but lost) the Rose Bowl, and had UCLA in the national title conversation (until Miami ended that conversation).  In that third season under Toledo, the Bruins were 10-0, ranked #1 in the BCS ranking and were on track to win go all the way - until December 5, 1998 happened.
  • Pete Carroll, Southern Cal:  And here's the comparison that everyone has been making since Mora was hired.  We've heard it time and time and time again - like Carroll, Mora is the failed NFL coach coming to the college ranks with no prior college football coaching experience, and asked to transform an ailing program into a national power.  It's a narrative we have seen pretty much everywhere - the mainstream media, social media, and on various UCLA-centered online communities (such as here, BRO, and BSR).  So, let's look at Carroll.  Before Carroll arrived, much to our glee, Southern Cal was in shambles - in Robinson's last two seasons, the Trojans went 6-6 and 6-5, followed by Paul Hackett's three seasons of 8-5, 6-6, and 5-7. Like Mora, Carroll wasn't even the first choice hire, but he got the job done (albeit with some help from some agents and less-than-legitimate recruiting). In his first five years with the Trojans, "the Humanitarian" posted a 54-10 record (or 40-10 if you take away all the wins that were vacated for Southern Cal cheating), won the conference four times (three times if you discount the vacated 2005 season), laid claim to the AP poll national title in his third season, won the BCS national title in his fourth season (although it was vacated), and in his fifth season, the Trojans went 12-1, won the conference, and lost in the national title game at the Rose Bowl to Vince Young and the Longhorns (we'll always love you in Westwood Vince!).

So, let's see how Jim has fared in comparison. So far, he's posted a 28-11 record in his three seasons in Westwood (in comparison, Carroll was at 29-9 through three, Toledo was at 25-10 through three), so he's on pace in terms of the overall wins and losses.  But as we all know, after those first three years, Carroll and Toledo's careers go on radically different directions.  Toledo hit the high-water mark in his third year.  After the disaster on December 5, 1998, the Bruins couldn't get another 10-win season again until Karl Dorrell's third year in Westwood (2005, 10-2).  Actually, I don't need to re-hash those dark days since 1998 - you've all lived them.  It fucking sucked.

But here's the rub on Mora - Pete Carroll had done far more than Mora did in his first three seasons - he won the conference twice, won the Orange Bowl, won the Rose Bowl, and laid claim to an AP national championship in his third year (the season where LSU beat Oklahoma to win the BCS title). Hell, even Bob Toledo had done more in his first three seasons than Mora has - even Toledo had two conference titles on his resume at the end of his third year.

We're really at the crossroads of Jim Mora's UCLA head coaching career.  It can go one of two ways - but one thing is crystal clear: despite all the sunshine pumping of the Mora fan boys, Jim Mora is no Pete Carroll - the numbers more than make that apparent.  And, of concern to UCLA fans, like Toledo, we might just be at the high-water mark for Mora.  Toledo ran off to that strong start, winning two conference titles behind the arm of one of UCLA's all-time special quarterbacks, a certain Cade McNown.  And then Cade was replaced by redshirt freshman Cory Paus (who was a high-rated QB recruit, being ranked between the #6 and #22 QB prospect nationally) and for a lot of reasons, it never clicked again for Toledo.

Like Toledo, Mora has started strong behind the arm of one of UCLA's all-time special quarterbacks, the career touchdown leader, a certain Brett Hundley (who has first-round NFL Draft talent).  And it looks like we'll be replacing Hundley with either an inexperienced and raw Asiantii Woulard or a true freshman in Josh Rosen.  So, if this story sounds familiar to UCLA fans, it shouldn't be a shock.

Again, no one is saying it's time to call time on Jim Mora's tenure in Westwood, but it should be very clear that the next two season will be very telling about whether he is "the guy" to get us to the promised land.  And the guidepost for whether he is the guy we should stick with is going to be whether or not he can deliver the big wins and most importantly, win the Pac-12 conference title.  That's not an unreasonable expectation for five seasons - bring home one, just one, Pac-12 conference title.

So, sit tight and let's see where this Mora experiment takes us - it could be fantastic or it could be Toledo Part II.  But in two years' time, if UCLA doesn't bring home at least one Pac-12 conference title, I think we'll know it's time to move on from a "pretty good" coach to a great one who can be "the guy" to get us to where we all want UCLA football to be.  You hear that Jim?  Tick, tock, the clock is ticking - two years with a conference title or bust.