It's been a long, very mediocre road for UCLA football fans - sixteen years to be precise - since the Bruins opened the season with an incredibly deep and talented roster, a squad that ran the table in the conference, an elite squad with national title aspirations, one that was the very first team ever ranked #1 by the BCS system - derailed only by a heartbreaking night on December 5, 1998 in Miami.
For the first time in sixteen years, UCLA has a team with the depth and talent to make a serious run at the national championship - this is, quite frankly, the best UCLA football team that the Bruin faithful have seen since 1998. In 1998, Bob Toledo had an experienced Heisman Trophy candidate at QB in the legendary senior Cade McNown (3470 passing yards, 25 TDs, 11 INTs, 182 rushing yards, 3 rushing TDs), a solid stable of running backs featuring a freshman stud at RB in DeShaun Foster (836 yards from scrimmage, 13 total TDs) who complemented two other solid RBs in redshirt sophomore Jermaine Lewis (671 yards from scrimmage, 12 total TDs) and junior Keith Brown (544 yards from scrimmage, 6 total TDs), a solid receiving corps featuring Danny Farmer and Brian Poli-Dixon, a dependable offensive line anchored by All-American tackle Kris Farris, a very good defensive line led by future long-time NFL defensive end Kenyon Coleman, a stud linebacker corps that featured future Super Bowl winning linebackers Ryan Nece (with Tampa Bay) and Brendon Ayanbadejo (with Baltimore), an experienced group of defensive backs led by Larry Atkins (who would go on to a five year NFL career), and the kicker/punter in senior Chris Sailer.
It was a pretty studly group of Bruins, which explains why they ran through the Pac-10 without dropping a single game, were ranked #1 in the first-ever BCS rankings, and came within one Edgerrin James of going to the inaugural BCS championship game.
But after sixteen long years of wandering the desert, in large part due to Chianti Dan hiring Karl Dorrell, followed by the failed Rick Neuheisel experiment, Jim Mora has finally built a UCLA Bruins football team that can rival the crop of Bruins we had in 1998, when we were on the edge of destiny. Like Toldeo, Mora has an experienced Heisman Trophy candidate at QB in redshirt junior Brett Hundley (3071 passing yards, 24 TDs, 9 INTs, 748 rushing yards, 11 rushing TDs in 2013). Hundley, our two-time Sports Illustrated cover guy, has the rare chance to write himself into UCLA lore this season - a Pac-12 conference championship, individual awards (including a very-real shot at the Heisman), and a chance to play in the first College Football Playoff, are all there for the taking. If Brett can lead the Bruins to those goals, he'll surpass the great Cade McNown in a lot of people's eyes - and that's no small accomplishment.
The running back corps is a mixed bag going into the season. While DeShaun Foster came to Westwood in 1998 with a lot of hype after being named USA Today's player of the year and an insane senior season (3,998 rushing yards, 59 total TDs . . . in a single season), the Bruins weren't short on talent in the backfield, with redshirt sophomore Jermaine Lewis expected to build on a solid freshman year as the back-up (319 yards from scrimmage, 2 TDs, 5.0 yards per carry) to the departed-for-the-NFL Skip Hicks. And while Lewis didn't have the break-out year many hoped for, Foster certainly was a revelation as a true freshman, with the running back corps (throwing in Keith Brown) in 1998 combined for 1649 yards on the ground. 402 receiving yards, and 31 total TDs. This year, things are a bit in flux - redshirt senior Jordon James (534 rushing yards, 55 receiving yards, 5 total TDs) is the presumptive starter, with many hoping he'll finally have the break-out season we've all been waiting for. Last year, James got a lot of help from now redshirt sophomore Paul Perkins (573 rushing yards, 296 receiving yards, 6 total TDs) and freak-of-nature Myles Jack (267 rushing yards, 7 total TDs), and that's not mentioning the a huge running contribution from Hundley. With Mora promising to not repeat the mistake of last year's Arizona State loss, Jack won't be in the backfield much this year, but there's a pair of young rushers who could have a DeShaun-like impact on the rushing game - redshirt freshman Craig Lee and true freshman Nate Starks, who has taken Jet Ski's former #23 as his own this year.
But while the running back situation isn't as solid as it was in 1998, the wide receiving corps is miles better in 2014 than it was for Cade in 1998. While it's hard to replace a Danny Farmer, Brian "Butterfingers" Poli-Dixon surely wouldn't be missed - this current crop of pass-catchers lost Shaq Evans, but it features a lot of very good players in Devin Lucien, Jordan Payton, the electric Devin Fuller, TE/Y extraordinaire Thomas Duarte, and the huge frame of redshirt freshman WR Eldridge Massington. In 1998, UCLA's primary receivers were Farmer (1,274 receiving yards, 9 TDs), Poli-Dixon (712 receiving yards, 10 TDs), and Brad Melsby (331 receiving yards, 2 TDs), accounting for 2,317 receiving yards and 21 TDs, with a lot of the receiving numbers inflated by Cade playing behind a stud offensive line and Toldeo's air-it-out offensive tendencies. This year, the Bruins return almost the entire receiving corps (between Lucien, Payton, Fuller, and Duarte . . . and excluding the graduated Evans and the yards picked up in the air by our running backs, a feature not really used in 1998) which put up a combined 1,464 receiving yards and 10 TDs, with the exception of Shaq Evans (709 receiving yards, 9 TDs), so experience won't be in short supply. Likewise, given the nature of Mazzone's system, Hundley should spread the ball around more, including to his running backs (while also presenting much more of a rushing threat than Cade), so on paper, this current edition of the UCLA football team looks to be just as talented as their 1998 counterparts, and certainly better than any UCLA team since.
Just bear in mind that the following QBs have started for UCLA between Cade's graduation and Hundley's ascension in Westwood: Drew Bennett, Cory Paus, Ryan McCann, Scott McEwan, Drew Olson, Matt Moore, Ben Olson, Pat Cowan, Osaar Rasshan, Kevin Craft, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Kevin Prince, and Richard Brehaut. Of those quarterbacks, only two have ever played a snap in the NFL - one as a WR (Bennett) and one only after transferring out of UCLA to Oregon State during Dorrell's tenure (Moore). The Law Firm gets passed around the NFL as a practice squad guy, while Drew Olson got activated from the practice squad in Baltimore for a single game and never came close to seeing the field. That's it. Kind of sad and sort of a damning indictment on UCLA's football program ever since Cade graduated. Hundley is the first big-time QB the Bruins have had in a very long time.
It is somewhat ironic - when the BCS first came out in 1998, the Bruins were the #1-ranked team in the system. The first year of the BCS held so much promise for the Bruins. Likewise, in the first year of the College Football Playoff, the Bruins are ranked anywhere from #5-#10 depending on which poll you read and are considered a serious contender to grab one of the four spots in the playoff. Will 2014 take the Bruins on the same ride as 1998 did? Will UCLA get their hearts broken in the penultimate game of the season? Or will the Bruins finally take the next big step that eluded us on December 5, 1998 and join the nation's elite teams in the top tier of college football?
When you look at this roster, top to bottom, there is no team that UCLA has fielded since 1998 that even comes close to the depth and quality that this squad has. In other words, there are no excuses if Mora doesn't bring home a conference championship and get the Bruins into the inaugural College Football Playoff. If not this year, then when? We can't keep waiting for next season - this is finally the season. It's win big or go home time for the Bruins. This is the team we've been waiting sixteen long years for.
Now is our time. We've been waiting long enough.