Is the Cal Game a Must Win for UCLA Football?


UCLA Football hosts Cal at the Rose Bowl tonight, and it comes at a crucial juncture in the season for both teams. Is it a must win game for the Bruins?

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When people throw around the term ‘must win,’ the obvious question it raises for me is, ‘or what?’ If tonight’s game is a must win, what does that mean if we don’t? Is Jim Mora going to lose his job? Of course not. Will the season be considered a disappointment? We can quibble about injuries, but I think most of us would already classify it as such. So I hesitate to call the game a must win because, without the promise of something being at stake, it just sounds like empty ranting.

No, what makes this year’s Cal game so important is not the consequences of a loss, but the implications. Nothing materially will change if UCLA loses tonight, but it will tell us a great deal about what this team really is and what expectations we should carry with us into the second half of the season.

Mossi Johnson at Safety? Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I put out my Power Poll the other day, and in it I hinted at a three-tier hierarchy in the Pac-12. At the top you have Stanford and Utah, and potentially Cal if they can sustain their current success. At the bottom are Colorado and Oregon State, with no realistic prospects of bowl eligibility. And then there is the gooey, nougat center that contains Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA, USC, Washington, and Washington State. Finishing at the top of that group would be respectable, if disappointing, for UCLA. Finishing toward the bottom would be an undeniable disaster.

The only trouble is that we don’t know where in that group this team currently stands. If UCLA beats Cal, then that tells me this Bruin team has the talent and depth remaining to win against Colorado, at Oregon State, against Washington State, and at USC. I still think that they struggle to beat Utah. That’s a 9-3 (6-3) record, identical to last year, and likely finishing second or third in the division. It’s Holiday Bowl-esque, which is a fine goal, if one short of our preseason dreams. That’s the best-case scenario I can see from the version of this team that’s good enough to beat Cal.

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If UCLA loses tonight – particularly if Cal wins big? Hoo, boy…

That Bruin team, coming off of back-to-back-to-back losses, suddenly doesn’t look so great going to a Washington State team that is picking up steam or even a talented USC team with its back against a wall. Now we’re looking at a worst case scenario of UCLA face-planting in its last three games for a record of 6-6 (3-6) and hoping for a New Mexico Bowl or Cactus Bowl invite. That’s not quite a 2012 USC-level bust, but it’s in the same neighborhood.

Both of these scenarios – and those in between, I suppose – are in play. So tonight’s outcome may not affect the results of the coming games, but I think we can see in this game an omen of what to expect the rest of the way.

Next: Keys to Not Losing Three in a Row

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