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Bruin Bites: What Will It Take for UCLA Football to Return to the Elite?

As the Bruins get ready to hit the road for training camp in San Bernardino, let's take a look at what people are saying the Bruins will need to do to join (rejoin) the elite of college football.

Eight was Great!
Eight was Great!
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

In 1998, the Bruins were set to head to the first BCS Championship Game. If not for the team's inability to stop Edgerrin James and/or a terrible call by the referees (Melsby's Knee Was Down!), UCLA would have participated in the inaugural championship game. There were other moments that caused UCLA to lose that game, and a hurricane that forced its rescheduling, but basically neither team could stop the other's offense, and it was clear, which ever team had the ball last, would win. The score, 49-45, marked the end of UCLA's latest experience as one of college football's and the beginning of a downward spiral that have left many forgetting that UCLA, with Cade McNown at the helm, went 20 and 0 in his last two seasons at UCLA.

UCLA football had a rich history even before that 1998 team. UCLA has been to the Rose Bowl 12 times. UCLA has the longest win streak in the cross town rivalry series at 8 (even counting the vacated victories by Southern Cal). The 1967 game against Southern Cal is considered to be one of the Games of the 20th Century. But ever since that loss to Miami, UCLA football had become irrelevant at the national level, only returning last year to the national conversation, only to be disappointed by losing its chances to go to the Pac-12 championship game, only to be embarrassed by Stanford (again).

UCLA football has clearly "turned the corner" and has become a solid team under Coach Mora. But what will it take for the Bruins to get over the hump and become one of the teams that consistently challenges for a spot in the championship series?

While I question the assertion that "Jim Mora has transformed the UCLA football program like no one else has in the school’s history", Owen Rothman at isportsweb explores the question of whether Jim Mora can be an elite coach. In his article Rothman agrees with us that:

The biggest qualm during Jim Mora’s tenure has been his inability to win the big game...

Until he does win that big game, the former NFL coach will merely be viewed in the same light as someone like Bo Pelini who never won anything substantial at Nebraska. Thus, this upcoming season is important to see if Mora can truly build upon the foundation he has built, as opposed to merely plateauing.

In recruiting, Rothman notes the "solid talent pool" Mora and company have brought to UCLA, however still sees Southern Cal as winning the big recruiting battles in L.A.:

Jim Mora will need to win not only the battles on the field, but also those off of it, and be able to control the fertile Los Angeles recruiting ground.

and, again like us, is concerned that player "development has not been at the requisite rate needed to sustain an elite program". While he notes that Mora has been successful at developing some talent:

UCLA’s secondary has been one of the weak links of the team during the past few seasons. The offensive line, while it should be good this upcoming year, has been atrocious in all other years, and has been singled out as one of the biggest detriments to the team’s success.

Rothman does point to Mora's leadership as being his best quality, noting his ability to raise salaries, handle public incidents, raise funds for the new football facility and earn respect.

According to CBS Sports NFL Scout Rob Rang, the talented group Mora has brought to UCLA, has "has made UCLA into a legitimate powerhouse in the Pac-12". Rang takes a look at UCLA's NFL talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball, including the Pac-12's top prospect Myles Jack:

Even on a team full of NFL prospects, Jack's pure athleticism stands out. Compactly-built with good overall musculature, light feet, a fluid turning motion and natural ball-skills, he could make the full-time switch to running back and earn early round consideration. Given his impact ability on defense, however, teams may hesitant to do that.

Jack is well suited to today's pass-happy NFL as he combines rare agility and speed with awareness in coverage. He has the fluidity to cover backs and tight ends step for step and anticipates routes well, breaking free from his assignment to close quickly on the ball.

Rang on Kenny Clark:

Clark could wind up joining Jack as a first round candidate if he can build upon a breakout sophomore campaign ... Scouts can check off a lot of boxes with Clark. He's a stout run defender who comes off the ball low and hard, consistently winning the leverage battle.

Eddie Vanderdoes:

Vanderdoes is better at stuffing the run than attacking quarterbacks... He's powerful; incorporating a strong slap to knock would-be blockers away and the leg drive to simply walk opposing blockers into the pocket. Better yet, he often arrives with a thud as a tackler.

And Fabian Moreau:

The big play ability of redshirt junior cornerback (and returner) Ishmael Adams steals much of the attention away from Moreau but the Ft. Lauderdale-native is a legitimate NFL prospect in his own right ... and possesses the combination of size, fluidity and open-field tackling ability scouts are looking for... Moreau has a tight, low backpedal and a fluid hip-turn to remain in the back pocket of receivers. He plays with a gambler's mentality, occasionally allowing space to receivers only to show a nice burst to break up passes once quarterbacks commit.

Chris Foster takes a look at how UCLA needs to improve at controlling the perimeter and the role Deon Hollins, Tom Bradley's "aggressive style", and other defenders will play in shoring up the outside.

Opposing coaches tell SI's Colin Becht, that "The thing that stands out with the Bruins is their athleticism and speed across the board". In Si's preview of this year's Bruins, Brecht believes that Deon Hollins may be this year's X-factor, noting how Deon finished with nine sacks last year after UCLA got off to a really bad start in that area (4 in the first 4 games).

Many think the play of the quarterback will be key to whether UCLA can join the elite. Jack Wang shares Rick Neuheisel's interview on SiriusXM College Sports Nation where Rick shares his belief that the quarterback competition is not over. While Josh Rosen is a "bonus baby" with a strong arm, Coach Neu believes that Jerry Neuheisel is the "cerebral" choice.

If Jerry gets a chance to use his ability to see what’s going on on the other side of the ball," Neuheisel said, "and he gets a chance to manipulate the offense, to take advantage of what’s happening on the other side of the ball — then Jerry will be hard to beat out. Because Jerry will get them in the right play all the time.

Rick Hoppe wonders if this year's game between UCLA and Southern Cal will be the biggest game since the 1967 "Game of the Century", noting, among other things,  that Southern Cal may be getting their act together and that Tom Bradley may get UCLA over big game hump.

So as the Bruins head out to San Bernardino ...

What do you think needs to happen for UCLA to get over "the big game hump" and, to once again, become an ongoing part of the national conversation? What do you think it will take for UCLA football to return to the elite of college football?

Speaking of elite, look who was on campus this week!

Enjoy the week, and as always ...

Go Bruins!