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UCLA Football: Bruin Nation's Alamo Bowl Roundtable Discussion

With the 2014 UCLA football season finally done and dusted, the writers and editors of Bruins Nation discuss the 2014 season, the Alamo Bowl, and what might lay ahead for the Bruins when next fall rolls around in Westwood.

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1.  The Bruins finish the year with a second consecutive 10-3 season, ending the year with a close win over Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl.  Now that we have to wait until the spring for football again, looking back on the year, are you satisfied with the program and this season?

IslandBruin2: I am not satisfied with the program or the season. I will be satisfied with the program when we start making regular appearances in New Year's games. Not necessarily every year, but at least once this millenium would be a start. As to this season, we stumbled against two teams we should have beaten in Utah and Stanford. If we can't at least win our division with the record setting QB, that bodes ill for the future.

Bellerophon: Overall, I would say I am satisfied with the program, but disappointed with this particular season.  First, if you told me that Jim Mora would win 9, 10, and 10 games in his first three seasons, when we first hired him, that would easily exceed my expectations for building this program into a contender.  Second, when I wrote about the long-term expectations for the program back in August 2013, the program is pretty much exactly where I expected it to be.  So why am I disappointed?  If anything, Mora is a victim of his prior success so far - a lot of things fell into place perfectly for UCLA going into this season, and with Hundley running the offense, this really was lining up to be the year for UCLA.  Everyone - the players, the coaches, the mainstream media, bloggers - was talking about this being a huge year for UCLA.  Instead, we got a very inconsistent season that was simply good, but not great.  So, yes, disappointed for this season, but I think the program is still on an upward trajectory.

Achilles: It's really hard for me to be unhappy after a 10-3 season that included a win over Southern Cal and some other top teams like ASU, AZ and KSU. I don't think as highly of our overall talent as I feel some others do. Yes, we had a really good quarterback by UCLA standards, but Hundley was not an Andrew Luck or even a Marcus Mariota. He was far from transcendent and he even acknowledged that he played with some degree of hesitation early in the year. On top of that, we were good but far from great at receiver and our secondary is/was average at best. Losing Randall Goforth was a big deal. We're going to finish ranked in the top twelve or whatever and that feels right. As for the long term -- I just don't know. It's better if this regime gets better and we make the leap up to elite with them because I have no faith that -- should be choose to or be forced to make a change -- that we'd necessarily find someone better.

gbruin: I think B says it exactly right except for his very last line. If you told me when Mora was hired we'd have 9, 10, and 10 win seasons and 2 bowl wins, I'd have taken that in a heartbeat. So overall, I am satisfied with the program, so far. But I can't be completely satisfied with how this season went, and I guarantee the coaches and players are not satisfied either. There were too many performances which fell far short of potential. When you look past the record and really examine how this team played this year and the problems which held them back from an even better season, we have to seriously ask if the program's trajectory is still headed upward. If we plateau as an annual 9-10 win team but never take that next step to a conference championship, then I'll be disappointed.

AHMB:  I am cautiously satisfied.  Look, Mora has done a good job at taking this program off the floor.  There is no question in my mind that he has made an impact.  The part that worries me is that the only thing consistent with Mora's tenure is that his teams play inconsistently.  There are too many Jekyll and Hyde games.  Too many slow starts, too many poor finishes.  And of course, far too many penalties.  These problems are rooted in something the staff is doing, and they need to fix it.

2.  What do you make of the Bruins' performance in the Alamo Bowl?  Why did UCLA struggle in the second half?

IslandBruin2: Mental toughness. The first half was so easy, and everything clicked. So the team and coaching staff lost the mental edge. At least that is my view from afar.

Bellerophon:  I won't re-hash everything I wrote in the post-game post, but it was an outstanding performance in the first half, and just pedestrian in the second half.  I would say you could chalk up UCLA's mediocre second half up to (i) Snyder and his staff being far superior at making half-time adjustments, and (ii) a continued lack of focus and killer instinct by this team.  The talent is there, but Mora and his staff have to figure out a way to keep their team firing for all 60 minutes. Too often, UCLA would get their foot on the opponent's throat and let off.

Achilles: KSU is a pretty good team. Some of it felt like circumstance. They had the ball first and had that long drive with all the 4th down conversions. We had no one who could cover Lockett. Then Perkins fumbled on a fluke and they capitalized and the game got close. Winning is winning. At the moment of truth, the line stepped up and opened a hole and Perkins had that long TD to seal it. We were underdogs in this game -- I fully expected KSU to make a second half run.

gbruin: The first half showed exactly what this team was capable of, both from the coaches and players, and justified the preseason hype and predictions. The second half showed why we didn't go further than we did. Of course KSU was going to make adjustments at halftime but we needed to have our counter-adjustments ready to play on the table immediately but we didn't seem to have a response. Fortunately, superior talent won out in the end, but getting outscored in the second half by 20 isn't a sign of great coaching on our part.

AHMB:  I think Achilles nailed it.  KSU did to us exactly what we did to them the first half; control the ball and the momentum.

3.  One last Alamo Bowl related point - what do you make of the entire Mora-Snyder handshake situation and the subsequent unusual Twitter activity by Mora?

IslandBruin2: I consider the Twitter issue to be a tempest in a teapot (showing my age, probably). But as to the handshake, I am glad that Mora stood up for his players.

Bellerophon:  The initial handshake brush-off was lame and I think even Mora recognized that, which is why he went back for a second proper handshake with a future Hall of Fame college football coach.  For me, the handshake thing was no big deal.  What I do not understand is why Mora decided to take to Twitter and post about it in a very passive-aggressive way that is more suggestive of emotional teenager angst than the football coach of a major college football program.  The whole Twitter thing was just very weird - he could have addressed it head on in the press conference by simply explaining that he spoke with Snyder about it, voiced his displeasure about the final play, and thought that it was reckless/dangerous/etc.  Instead, he doesn't say anything about it in the press conference and out of nowhere fires off on Twitter.  Maybe he was right, maybe he wasn't - I don't think that matters; the entire situation was just weird.  The subsequent backlash from the wider Twitter universe, Mora deleting his public Twitter account, and then re-appearing on a private Twitter account is just a massive public relations failure. Except for the initial post on Twitter, I wouldn't even be inclined to put that on Mora - it seems par for the course for the amateurs handling public relations and communications at Chianti Dan's Morgan Center.

Achilles: To me, it's like a video of a puppy licking a goat that goes viral. I realize that many people online are interested, but I don't get why. I could really and truly not give two shits about the postgame handshake. I am stunned that anyone cares. In all my life, I have not cared about the postgame handshake. I hope someone in the comments who cares about postgame handshakes explains to me why they care about them because I'd like to know why they matter. As for the Twitter deleting thing -- seems like an institutional issue because I sort of doubt that Jim Mora considers himself a Twitter expert. I'm guessing he got some bad advice.

gbruin: The more I read from the players after the game, the more I came to support Mora for being pissed, but there were so many better ways he could have parlayed the situation for the good of the program and his own reputation. Instead of rushing the initial handshake and then making cryptic comments in the presser and on twitter, he should have spun that into something positive and team oriented and a rallying cry for UCLA, like how he did with the bonfire at the Beat $c rally. I think the world's fascination with twitter is superficial and ridiculous in the first place, but I recognize how it can be an important marketing tool and I hope he reopens his public account.  He's the face of UCLA football and in many ways of the University, so he needs to be out in front and manage that appropriately.

AHMB:  I think Mora's anger was completely justified, but he should've handled it differently.  He realized it a moment too late and did come back to talk to Coach Snyder, but the damage had been done.

4.  Let's look ahead to next season, beginning with one of UCLA's greatest quarterbacks of all time - Brett Hundley.  Where do you think Hundley will go in the upcoming NFL Draft?  Do you think he will succeed at the next level?

Bellerophon: I think Brett will get drafted either late in the first round or sometime in the second round.  His draft stock definitely slipped a bit this year, due to the fact that there are other, more-highly-rated QB prospects out there (the Buccaneers seem set on taking either Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston at the #1 spot) and that his own decision-making still seemed questionable at times.  But there's no question that Brett has NFL-level ability and he will be a good NFL quarterback.  I don't know if he'll be great, but I think he will, at the minimum, have a very solid and long NFL career (even if it's only as a back-up QB) because he is very intelligent and that will keep him in the game.  Looking at the teams that need a QB, I could see Brett being drafted to be "the guy" by the Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans, or the St. Louis Rams (the Rams are desperate for a QB who can stay on the field after enduring years of Bradford's injury problems - and if there's one thing we know about Hundley, he can take a lot of hits and keep going).  I could also see Hundley getting taken by the New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots, or the Denver Broncos, to be groomed as the eventual successor to Drew Brees, Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning.

Achilles: It's really hard to say. Hundley was at his best when he was a dual threat quarterback. Early in the year when he was trying to prove he was a pocket passer, he just wasn't as good. So, it's hard to say if the pro scouts will care about that or not. Hundley, to me, is one of those guys who some teams will love and some teams won't. He reminds me of former Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb. McNabb had a really nice career, not a Hall of Famer, but a good career. I think late first, early second makes sense.

gbruin: I hope that someone in the late first round, i.e. an already successful team, looks at the future and sees a chance to get a great talent now and then give him time to develop behind an established QB. Hundley has all the skills and maturity but he needs some polish before being ready to be a top NFL QB (and I would say much the same for Winston and a bit less so for Mariota). Seeing as I will always root for Brett, I just pray he doesn't end up with Oakland or New England or Seattle.

AHMB:  I don't know where he'll end up, but I think he'll rise when scouts start digging in to his tape.  There's no doubt that Hundley can be a successful NFL quarterback in my mind, but there are always so many variables.  Is he going to an organization with a secure staff?  Is he going to play right away or sit?  Is he going to have a line and weapons?  I'm sure we will have plenty of material on BN about Hundley and the draft as it draws closer, and any NFL team that drafts him should count on a lot of new Bruin fans.

5.   As for "next year" for UCLA, let's set aside the expectations for Jim Mora's fourth year in charge in Westwood - what do you predict will actually happen next year?  Will the Bruins stumble without Hundley at the helm or will Mora return the Bruins to the conference title game?

IslandBruin2: I think the Bruins will be in the conference title game, thanks to our schedule. We switch out Oregon and Washington, and switch in Oregon State and Washington State. We have enough talent that the QB transition issue will not stop us.

Bellerophon: I think we'll end up going 9-3 during the regular season, with losses on the road to Arizona, Stanford, and Utah (assuming Whittingham is still there).  We'll have a true freshman QB running the offense, Arizona will be solid again, Mora will still be unable to solve the Stanford riddle (plus it's a Thursday game and it's on the road - never a good combo for UCLA), and Utah on the road has always been an Achilles' heel for UCLA.  So, mark it down for three losses in the regular season.  Whether that's good enough to win the Pac-12 South and take on the Ducks at Levi's Stadium depends a lot on results between the Arizona schools and Utah.

Achilles: I'm looking forward to next season. Lots of good players returning. The offensive line returns everyone but Bunche and Goines returns, plus the kids who redshirted and the incoming freshman. We're also getting some stud JC player on the offensive line. We haven't had that kind of depth at o-line in a decade and a half. We still need a great receiver, but the whole very solid core returns. I'm looking for big things from Thomas Duarte next year. Goforth returns to solidify the secondary and hopefully we get improvement from Priest Willis and Fabian Moreau. Willis seems more like a safety to me. Deon Hollins really had a great second half of the season after seeming lost the first part of the year. We lose Eric Kendricks and Owa, but have a lot of good young players. Marcus Rios will play a whole season. Let's put it this way -- I don't really like to make predictions but I'm definitely looking forward to next year.

gbruin: Well, I look at this year and think of all the times Hundley bailed us out when the offense was struggling and I think there is no way that next year's QB (read - Josh Rosen) can replicate that. I'm hopeful though that level of QB play won't be as crucial with a more experienced offensive line, with Paul Perkins and Nate Starks established as very capable running backs, and with a solid array of receivers, especially with passing accuracy being one of Rosen's best traits. I expect the defense will be roughly the same, but finding someone who is as solid a tackler as Eric Kendricks is really key for how this defense operates. The schedule should be a bit easier next year. Unfortunately, I don't predict Noel Mazzone will change much, but I think that Jeff Ulbrich is new enough that we can see growth from his position. Overall, I predict the record to be about the same, and that record fell just short of winning the South this year. I wouldn't be surprised to be in the same boat again, at least until Rosen shows he can start winning games with his arm, and I don't think that happens next year.

AHMB:  I think we'll be in the mix again next year.  There isn't a game on our schedule that is not winnable, but then again, if the team plays as inconsistently as it did this year, nearly losing to VIrginia, Memphis, Texas, Berkeley, and Colorado, then there is not a game on our schedule that is not lose-able, either.

6. The final extra point of the season - fire away:

IslandBruin2: This coming offseason will give us some real insight into the direction of the program. Will loyalty be rewarded over results in terms of the coaching staff? If so, we will probably be looking at 8-9 win regular seasons and 2nd tier bowls for a while. Here's hoping that we get needed change.

Bellerophon:  Speaking of next year, I know people are very high on Josh Rosen.  Let's not forget that he's a true freshman.  As great as he looks playing for St. John Bosco, the fact remains he is playing on a stacked team and is playing against pedestrian high school programs.  He has zero experience at the college level and the speed and intensity at the college level will be unlike anything he has experienced before - everyone is faster, stronger, bigger, etc. There will be struggles. Long-term, Rosen could end up being the greatest QB in UCLA history, but as a true freshman, people need to reasonable about what to expect from him.  After all, in the entire history of Division I-A football, only one true freshman QB has led his team to a national title (Jamelle Holieway at Barry Switzer's Oklahoma in 1985) and that was in a run-option offense on a team stacked with an insane amount of talent. The value of the redshirt season cannot be overstated enough - Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Brett Hundley all got to redshirt their first year in college and get acclimated to the college game and the payoff showed.  I hope I'm wrong and Rosen becomes the second true freshman QB to lead a team to a national championship, I really do, but I'm just trying to bring some reality to the discussion on Rosen.

Achilles: I agree with everything Bellerophon wrote about Rosen. That said, I'm excited to watch him play. When was the last time we recruited a flat out stud five star quarterback? I really don't remember, unless you count transfer Ben Olson. To me, it's a process. We were abysmal when Mora took over. Our talent level was laughable. We obviously haven't completely closed the gap on the top half dozen teams in the country and big, physical teams like Stanford still give us trouble (and we don't have the Oregon like athletes to counteract) but we've become a competitive program. We've gone from being like the 80th best team in the country to the 12th or 15th best team in the country. Does that mean I'm satisfied? Not really, I want to see us in the playoffs. I have no problem admitting this team has flaws. But I'm willing to see if we are able to overcome those flaws. I actually am rooting really hard for Mora to succeed because what's the alternative? I really don't want to endure another coaching search.

gbruin: Speaking of extra points, Ka'imi Fairbairn had a really good season this year. He was outstanding on kickoffs, very solid on PATs (46 of 47), and pretty good on FGs (18-22, 82%, up from 67% in 2013). He connected on his last three kicks beyond 40 which has been his big knock. That last minute 50 yard snafu vs Utah was his only meaningful miss, if there is such a concept. We'll need him to win that kind of game for us at some point and watching him develop over the last 3 years has been a bit painful, especially with what we've been used to in Westwood, but I actually like him going into his senior year.

Alright folks, that's it for the year.  We'll be back with our roundtable discussions of football when the team hits the field again, but for now, fire away in the comment thread with your thoughts on the season, what you predict next year has in store for the Bruins, and how this season ended up shaping up.