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The Winners and Losers of the 2018 UCLA Football Season

Handing out some superlatives for the season.

USC v UCLA Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

So, I’ve been around the internet once or twice and I’ve noticed that people love to write articles declaring whether things are winners or losers, aka whether something looked better or worse than it did at the start.

Now, as someone who is extremely online, I wanted to take a crack at writing something like this. So, let’s get into it.

Loser: The Mystique of Chip Kelly aka Everyone’s Expectations for UCLA in 2018

COMING OUT GUNS BLAZING TO START!

Here’s are some simple statements: UCLA vastly underperformed compared to the Vegas over/under line of 5.5 wins set prior to the season. The Bruins were also picked to place 4th in the Pac-12 South in preseason with the Bruins receiving a few votes to win the division and even one vote to win the conference. They, obviously, fell short of those as well. By S&P+, the Bruins entered the year expected to finish with 5.6 wins, and were projected to land at 39th by S&P+ overall; the Bruins ended the year ranked 91st.

Also, and this is unfair, but Herm Edwards, a coaching hire we all made fun of this past offseason, won 7 games and got the Sun Devils to 2nd in the South.

By most outside views, UCLA underachieved relative to expectations and, on some level, that is going to take the sheen off of Chip Kelly, because, like it or not, this is now his 3rd straight year of coaching where his teams have failed to meet expectations.

But, let’s be absolutely fair here: there were all kinds of signs that Chip Kelly was launching into a full-scale rebuild here from the larger-than-expected exodus of players to the stories of practices focusing on fundamentals and revamped strength and nutrition programs to countless Bruce Feldman reports trying to pump the brakes on the 1st Year Chip hype. Continuing to be absolutely fair here, we were one of many pro-UCLA sites out there pumping up Kelly’s chances at having a good season, because we all had seen what he had done at Oregon and were overlooking the rot that had taken hold of the UCLA program.

But, make no mistake about it — the legend of Chip Kelly definitely took a hit this year, the same way Scott Frost took a hit after a poor 1st year at Nebraska. You can’t just go 3-9 and pretend it all went according to plan, as you end up driving casual fans away. This year’s Crosstown Rivalry is a fantastic study of that idea, with the announced attendance of 57,116 representing the lowest amount for the rivalry since 1950. While you can argue Southern Cal was underwhelming coming into the game, UCLA certainly was not holding up its end of the deal either.

It also sets up an interesting situation where Chip Kelly may need to show some actual, tangible results next year, if only to keep the whispers away. UCLA fans have become understanding of the fact that this team was going to be bad, but two years of underwhelming results will certainly make the grumbling louder.

Winner: Chip Kelly, Offensive Genius

On the flip side, this was a pretty solid proof of concept for the idea that Chip Kelly is still a smart guy when it comes to offense.

Consider the following: UCLA juggled between a grad transfer and a true freshman QB, both of whom missed time due to injuries; ended up with a running back group led by a former walk-on transfer from UC Davis flanked by two true freshmen; and had an offensive line that included a true freshman and a converted defensive lineman at center. That this group even looked coherent should maybe be considered a minor miracle. That they went on to put up some impressive numbers by the end of the season is nothing less than a testament to the offensive system Chip Kelly has developed.

It was certainly a long and strange road to get here. When Chip Kelly was hired, the question surrounding the offense was whether Kelly would bring back his Blur offense, which had taken the college world by storm and brought Oregon to national prominence. At the same time, a host of national commentators repeatedly stated that the Blur just doesn’t work anymore, which, yes it does, and even programs like Alabama have taken concepts from it. Chip Kelly, being the mastermind that he is, chose to zag, rather than zig, as he unveiled an offense with more pro-style concepts than anyone imagined.

Jim Mora remarked upon the hiring of Kennedy Polamalu that he wanted an offense with multiple looks, but Chip Kelly has truly designed an offense that can do that and its ability to morph on a weekly basis to take advantage of opposing defenses. This week’s opponent has a poor front seven? Here are a bunch of three tight end sets and pulling guards. Is this week’s opponent weak in the secondary? Time to go with five wide. Does the opponent have a tired defense? Here comes the hurry-up. The Bruin defense is tired? Here is a 7-minute touchdown drive.

By the end of the year, the offense was firing on all cylinders and could go from Wilton Speight throwing for 335 yards to Joshua Kelley running for 289 yards and back to Speight throwing for 466 yards in the span of a week. The plug-and-play nature also meant that other guys, like Martell Irby, were able to shine in increased roles.

The impressive thing about the offense is that it really does rely on the fact that Chip Kelly is an incredible offensive mind. The pre-snap checks to the sideline aren’t just for show, but rather it allows Chip to read the defense himself and adjust the play call if need be. It is essentially one giant bet that Chip Kelly is smarter than the opposing defensive coordinator. After one season, that bet looks like it could pay off big.

Winner: Joshua Kelley

I mean, you all watched the Southern Cal game, right?

Beyond that, Kelley was a revelation for the Bruins this year, as he put up 1243 rushing yards on the season, and had 7 games where he had 100+ all-purpose yards. This is despite only carrying the ball 11 times through the first 3 games and didn’t even appear against Fresno State. Kelley didn’t grab the starting RB job so much as took it by force and he has the makings of a dark-horse Heisman candidate if he can keep up this level of production next year.

Loser: Scott White

If there’s anything that this last season of UCLA football showed, it’s that former linebackers coach Scott White was extremely bad at his job.

The Bruins emerged from this past season in desperate need of linebacker help, thanks to years of misses at the position. Injuries to top guys like Jaelan Phillips (admittedly more of a defensive end) and Josh Woods revealed a linebacker corps mostly filled with Scott White recruits that struggle to show any consistency. Krys Barnes was maybe the best of the bunch and he fluctuated wildly from actual good play to black hole throughout the season. Another top-end recruit Lokeni Toailoa has also shown flashes, but lacks consistency. The rest of the linebacker group is littered with never-realized potential, like Mique Juarez, or empty spots where players recruited by White have left. Tyree Thompson, a JC transfer, occupied a starting spot for most of the year, in part, because of how thin things got, but he’s not the long-term answer.

The point is, you don’t get to this point without years of mismanagement at the position and that falls directly on former linebackers coach Scott White. This is a problem that will take a few years to solve unfortunately.

Loser: Home Field Advantage

Well, technically, UCLA won more games at home than on the road, but the bigger issue is that UCLA struggled to create anything resembling home field advantage this season. It’s part of a longer trend where the game day experience at UCLA has eroded away.

Now, to be fair here, the athletic department did at least try some new things to improve the experience, such as the weekly flyovers and fireworks, which were discontinued after a certain point. And the athletic department was more receptive to the idea that change was needed, such as providing a better speaker setup for yell leaders halfway through the season, even if it still needs a speaker on the 50-yard line on the shady side of the field.

But that doesn’t take away from how sterile the experience at the Rose Bowl has become. The hype video and music prior to the team coming in has just become depressing, failing to get anyone pumped up for the game. It probably didn’t help that, by the end of the season, Chip Kelly had the team standing at the end of the tunnel before the video even started. And that doesn’t even get into how the combination of a bad football team and ridiculous ticket prices has left the Rose Bowl empty, or at least half-filled with opposing fanbases. It’s a complex problem that has to do with many factors, like current students not being actively engaged with athletics, for instance, but the athletic department really needs to take a long look at the game day experience and make some real, tangible, fundamental changes, rather than some window dressing on the peripheries.

Also, hey, UCLA! You won the Victory Bell. Maybe show it off during the game. ON. THE. FIELD. Just a thought.

Winner: The Youth Movement

Despite all the losses, you have to like what you’ve seen from some of the young players on this team. UCLA has one of the youngest squads in the country and it wasn’t particularly deep. So, the Bruins ended up with a lot of freshmen playing significant minutes. For example, here is a list of positions where a true freshman started for UCLA this season:

  • Quarterback
  • Offensive Line
  • Wide Receiver
  • Defensive Line

And that doesn’t include significant true freshman contributions at other positions such as running back and in the secondary. The youth movement was in full effect this year, which could pay dividends down the line.

Loser: Non-Dedicated Special Teams Coaching

I get the argument that devoting a coach specifically to special teams may not be the best allocation of limited resources, but this year’s UCLA special teams effort sits as a perfect counterargument. Special teams was, by all accounts, a disaster and, while you can blame part of this on a thin roster, the simple truth is that UCLA was routinely out-coached in this facet of the game. Reports came out during the run-up to the Arizona State game that the coaching staff was taking a more active approach to coaching special teams and it led to the best performance in the final five weeks of the season, but even that performance topped out at a C in the Eye Test. Clay Helton was even smart enough to recognize how poor UCLA’s coaching had been in this area and he smartly called for both a fake punt AND an overloaded punt block attempt that both worked.

At this point, even if you don’t want to shift to a dedicated special teams coach, the fact is that UCLA did not look like it spent nearly enough time working on special teams concepts and it cost them multiple games. If the Bruins are going to be successful next year, special teams play has to improve and that would include the coaching staff doing a much better job with this in practice.

Winner: Josh Rosen

I tend to think Josh got the short end of the stick among Bruin fans. Thanks to his teams being underwhelming, his history of injuries, and his willingness to state his opinions, people seemed to discount exactly how good he was. I’m not exaggerating when I say he may be one of the most talented quarterbacks in UCLA history.

Which leads me to Josh Rosen being vindicated by this season of play, as it made clear to everyone just how badly the roster had been mismanaged in the tail end of the Mora era. That the team won 6 games at all is a testament to Rosen willing the team to victory as much as anything else, as he was saddled with receivers who struggled to catch the ball, a nonexistent running game, and an underwhelming offensive line, all on top of a defense that struggled to make stops.

There is a beautiful alternate reality where Josh decided to return this year and we got to watch an offense that fired on all cylinders from the get-go, as it became apparent by the end of the season that Rosen would have thrived quickly in this system. But, alas, Rosen made the (correct) decision to go off and get paid in the NFL, where he has to deal with receivers who struggle to catch the ball, a nonexistent running game, and an underwhelming offensive line, all on top of a defense that struggles to make stops.

Winner: Josh Rosen, True Freshman Edition

Yeah, I’d say Josh Rosen won twice this year, because we also got another example of why he was such an exceptional talent when you compare his true freshman outing to that of Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

I’ve been on record saying that you shouldn’t play a true freshman quarterback unless they are either truly talented and ready or you have no other options. Quarterbacks just seem to benefit more from the redshirt year than any other position, as they need that time to absorb the mental aspects of the job as much as develop physically. Sometimes you get a quarterback on campus, like a Josh Rosen, who really is ready to step up and lead a team from day one and plays at a high level, but those instances are rare.

I get how unfair it is to compare Rosen to DTR. I really do, but that’s the standard that should be met to willingly play a true freshman quarterback and I can say that DTR did not meet that standard. He played like you would expect a true freshman to play, mixing brilliant play with mind-numbing decisions. The problem is UCLA had a bevy of other options at quarterback besides DTR to start the season. Wilton Speight was originally tabbed as the starter to start the season, but he got hurt in the first game. Still, despite being cleared by the Colorado game, it took an injury for him to regain the starting job and show that he should have been starting the entire time. When Speight went down against Cincinnati, UCLA still had the services of Devon Modster, a redshirt sophomore with starting experience but who had been passed over. The argument that “this will all be fine because DTR got some much-needed experience” leaves out the fact that Thompson-Robinson is not guaranteed the starting job next year. UCLA is already bringing in Chase Griffin, who was recently named Gatorade High School Player of the Year in Texas, and could potentially bring in Jayden Daniels, a hyper-talented quarterback prospect from San Bernardino. It also ignores the potential for UCLA to bring in another grad transfer quarterback.

It should be noted that none of this is Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s fault. He only had 1 year of starting experience at the high school varsity level and he chose not to come in early. The entire situation screamed that he should sit and study the position, but he got thrown out of the frying pan and into the fire.

At least, Josh Rosen’s freshman season continued to look good, I guess.

That brings us to the season’s final loser for which there can be only one choice.

Loser: Southern Cal

34-27, suckers. ‘Nuff said.