After a disappointingly close win over a hapless Virginia football team, there's some red flags and issues surrounding the UCLA Bruins football team - a team touted to be in the mix for the inaugural College Football Playoff and legit title contenders for the Pac-12 conference crown. Yes, it's only one game, and yes, we did win (albeit in a very disappointing, lackluster manner, rather than coming out of the gate flying). Yes, the season is not lost and we still have a golden opportunity to make this an elite season.
But, in some ways, Saturday's sloppy play, poor offensive play-calling, and continued persistence in committing boneheaded penalties (a recurring problem at UCLA), this team feels reminiscent of some of Berkeley's best teams over the past decade-plus - a team with a lot of talent, a team expected to legitimately challenge for the conference crown, but who came up just short. But, in other ways, this program feels like Jim Harbaugh's Stanford teams at the end of his tenure - a lot of very talented players, a "tough guy" attitude instilled in the program, an elite QB (Luck and Hundley, respectively), a program on the cusp of greatness.
In short, it feels like Jim Mora's UCLA program is at a crossroads - there is the road traveled down by our brethren at Berkeley under Tedford, coming oh-so-close to the Rose Bowl, but falling short, before the whole house of cards came crumbling down - and then there is the road traveled by Stanford under Harbaugh, building up a program to elite status, setting up the program for a run of four consecutive BCS bowl games and two Pac-12 conference crowns.
When Mora was hired, the common refrain in the media was that UCLA was trying to hire their own Pete Carroll - a failed NFL coach with a defensive background and a chip on his shoulder looking to build something great in the college game. But I've never liked the Carroll comparisons - Mora may or may not turn out to be "the guy" for UCLA football - he may turn out to be a total bust for all we know - but unlike Carroll, who ran one of the dirty, criminal-laden programs in the country, Mora is a complete class act who runs a clean program and actually disciplines his players for their transgressions. So, let's smash the Carroll-Mora comparisons - it's insulting to Mora's personal character.
Rather, the true comparison is to either Berkeley's former head coach Jeff Tedford - a good coach who was able to build up an otherwise laughable program (remember how just terrible they were under Holmoe?) that hadn't seen the Rose Bowl since 1959 (and hasn't won it since 1938) into a very good program, a conference contender (and for one season, a national contender), but was unable to seal the deal or sustain top level success - or to Stanford's former head coach Jim Harbaugh - a great coach who built up an incredibly sorry Stanford program (thanks to idiotic coaching troika of Tyrone Willingham, Buddy Teevens, and Walt Harris) into an elite program that is now perennial challenging for not just the conference crown but has been in four consecutive BCS bowls.
So, who do we have?
Let's also start with the one side note that Mora inherited a program with a significantly more talented roster than either Tedford or Harbaugh inherited when they started at their respective Bay Area schools - getting a squad with studs like Jet Ski, Fauria, and Hundley definitely makes your life easier.
Mora began strong in 2012, going 9-5 overall, winning the Pac-12 South, but ending the year with a whimper, losing the last three games of the year, including a savage beating at the hands of Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. But, 2013 was a big step forward, finishing 10-3 overall, just missing out on the Pac-12 South, but picking up a very big win over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
Tedford inherited a broken program but beginning in 2002, he never posted a losing season until it all started to fall apart in 2010. He opened with a 7-5 season in 2003, followed by a 8-6 year and an Insight Bowl win in 2003. Things took a big step forward in 2004, with a 10-2 win, and a serious mention in the national title conversation for a bit, before ending with a disappointing loss in the Holiday Bowl. Berkeley took a step back in 2005 with a 8-5 year, but shared the conference crown with Southern Cal in 2006 with a 10-3 season and a Holiday Bowl win. The Bears never reached those heights again with Tedford, gradually coming apart over the next six seasons - Berkeley always started out strong but always came up short.
Harbaugh also took over an ailing, weak program, but after two rebuilding seasons in 2007 (4-8) and 2008 (5-7), he had the Trees at 8-5 and in the Sun Bowl in 2009. By 2010, Stanford finally broke out, going 12-1 and grabbing a BCS win in the Orange Bowl to finish ranked #4 in the nation. At that point, Harbaugh jumped ship to the NFL and the Niners (can't blame him since the Niners are awesome and all), but the machine he built and left in the hands of his former assistant, David Shaw, followed 2010 with three consecutive BCS bowl births and two Pac-12 conference crowns.
In many ways, last season looks a lot like Tedford's 2004 and 2006 seasons - 10 win seasons, a lot of national exposure, and a lot of momentum going forward. Likewise, it looks a lot like Harbaugh's 2009 season - very good team, very talented, played in the Sun Bowl, primed for a big year the following season behind an elite Heisman Trophy caliber QB (Luck and Hundley, respectively). The question is - which path will Mora and UCLA go down - will we finally get the Pac-12 conference crown and Rose Bowl berth we've been waiting so long for and finally jump back into the elite tier of college football programs, like Harbaugh did with Stanford? Or will Mora raise expectations but fail to deliver and eventually flounder and fail, like Tedford did at Berkeley?
It's still early but we're at the crossroads for UCLA's football program - a rise to greatness or a descent back to mediocrity. We'll see where this goes.