Pac-12 Championship Game, UCLA vs. Stanford, Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
There’s really no denying it—the UCLA football program has been stuck in neutral since the new millennium.
Aside from a 10-2 season with Maurice Jones-Drew in 2005, the Bruins haven’t made a dent in the championship conversation. A recent resurgence under head coach Jim Mora has fueled hope for a brighter future, but it’s still unclear just how long it’ll take for the Bruins to make a full return to relevance.
With that said, there’s also no denying that the Bruins took a gargantuan step forward in 2012. Only a year after finishing 6-8 in former coach Rick Neuheisel‘s lap of shame, UCLA won nine games for the second time in 15 years, and claimed the Pac-12 South title outright.
The highlight of the season was a 38-28 win over rival Southern Cal that clinched the division crown in late November. The rain-drenched victory was UCLA’s first in the Battle for Los Angeles since 2006, and only the second since 1998.
Call it schadenfreude, but it was nice for Bruins fans to be on top in the Southland while the Trojans stumbled their way through a lost season.
UCLA uarterback Brett Hundley, Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
However, in spite of the success, the Bruins ended the year on a three-game losing streak, including a shockingly bad showing versus Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. In order for UCLA to earn and keep the respect of the country, Mora will need to show that last season was no fluke. The poll voters need to see the Bruins sustain a high level of play, winning the games they should and some of the ones they probably shouldn’t.
Incidentally, there will be plenty of opportunities for UCLA to wow the college football world in 2013. With a slate that includes road dates at Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon and Southern Cal (all teams ranked in preseason projections), the Bruins will have the nation’s attention a number of times.
There’s definitely reason for concern regarding UCLA’s schedule in Mora’s second year. To be sure, it’s one of the toughest in the conference. But anyone who regulars the sports book knows you need to bet big to win big (unless you’re lucky enough to predict the day’s blockbuster upset).
If the Bruins can survive a manageable home slate and pull off a few big wins on the road, they could find themselves in their second ever BCS bowl during the system’s final season. At the same time, a few slip ups in Pasadena or a poor showing under the bright lights could leave UCLA back in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl conversation.
For the Bruin faithful, an invigorating 2012 campaign inspires reserved optimism, but we’ve been fooled far too many times before. The calling card of UCLA athletics this century has been falling flat just when we think they’re getting it. Mora and the Bruins are in a position seldom seen in Westwood, ranked in preseason polls with a palpable media buzz and legitimate expectations.
Should we expect an end to the SEC’s championship run in favor of the True Blue? It doesn’t seem likely. But should we expect a disciplined, mentally tough team fighting tooth and nail every week? Absolutely.
Anthony Barr, Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
The Bruins have the returning pieces, incoming talent and coaching necessary to compete for another Pac-12 South title and a third straight championship game appearance. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if UCLA doesn’t get there again, but it would be horrifying if the Bruins weren’t at least in contention to the bitter end.
The road will be long—filled with doubters, haters and a hoard of ‘SC homers. UCLA is on the cusp of true relevance, but is also one rough stretch away from the familiar abyss. Cue Simon & Garfunkel – The Sound of Silence.
We’ll get our first taste of the future when the Bruins welcome Nevada to the Rose Bowl on Aug. 31, followed by an excruciating bye week and a trip to Lincoln the week after. By then, we’ll know just how close UCLA is to its glorious comeback. And by the end of October, all our questions about the reality of the “Bruin Revolution” will be answered…at least until next offseason.