I’m not really out on a limb here, because the 2014 Bruins suddenly seem to be the trendy national pick to break into college football’s upper echelon. The UCLA bandwagon seems to get exponentially more crowded with each preview show and college football blog.
Usually that worries me. Greatly. Superstitious sports fan me doesn’t like it when things seem a little too perfectly set up—especially when we’re talking about UCLA football.
I mean, when ESPN GameDay commentators start picking the Bruins to win the national title (Lee Corso and Desmond Howard) and star quarterback Brett Hundley to take home the Heisman Trophy (Corso and Kirk Herbstreit), when Sports Illustrated puts Hundley on its cover twice in three weeks, when you can get 33-1 odds in Las Vegas on Bruin linebacker Myles Jack to win the Heisman, and when the Pac-12 Network (I swear, it really does exist) features UCLA in its behind-the-scenes reality show “The Drive” and the opening episode is basically a free 30-minute blue-and-gold commercial depicting Coach Jim Mora as a blend of Nick Saban without the cyborg and Pete Carroll without the feathered hair and vacated title, and Hundley tears up on cue while talking about his childhood SI cover dreams becoming reality… come on. What’s the catch?
There has to be one, right? After all, it’s UCLA, which prior to Mora’s hiring three years ago showed little evidence that, as an institution, it even understood modern college football anymore. Certainly the Bruins were an afterthought, even in L.A. “When I first got here [in 2011],” said Hundley on The Drive. “You didn’t see anything ‘UCLA.’ Absolutely nothing. People didn’t want to wear our stuff.”
|Myles Jack (AP)|
Premature? Overly optimistic? Maybe. One can always hedge one’s bets, a sensible move, historically speaking, vis-a-vis UCLA football. But I’m with soccer writer Roger Bennett, when he says, “Sport is ultimately about feelings. Feeling emotions you are meant to experience in everyday life—happiness, anticipation, fear, ecstasy, searing disappointment—but are regrettably numb to.”
And given that fear and searing disappointment were the norm for about a decade prior to Mora, maybe it’s time for some anticipation and ecstasy.
After all, the evidence has kept mounting: Mora beating USC in the Coliseum, then saying thanks but no thanks to coaching vacancies at Washington and Texas. Hundley bypassing the NFL draft for one more season in college. Better schedule. More experience. More depth. More Myles Jack.
UCLA might end up being favored in every single game this season. It should be the most athletic Bruin squad since the late 1980s, and in year three of its offensive and defensive schemes and in Sal Alosi’s strength and conditioning program, things could be really clicking on both sides of the ball for the first time in forever. [Speaking of systems: Stanford and Oregon rightfully get credit for their respective systems, but given that UCLA is fine-tuning its own scheme—going for SEC-style speed in a 3-4 defense, paired with Noel Mazzone’s offense, all coached by a staff with tons of NFL experience who get their players drafted while also insisting on accountability to the team (“Protect the team. Protect our locker room. Protect our image,” Mora exhorts the squad in The Drive.) Given all that, it might not be too long before talk of a “UCLA system” is heard.
Finally, though this is purely subjective and impossible to quantify, it just feels like the Bruins are a cool team again, maybe for the first time since the late-1980s. Even during the 20-game win streak and near-national title game berth during the late 1990s, it never quite felt like UCLA had any sort of hold on the national attention. The Bruins’ offense with Cade McNown was impressive for a couple of years, but the defense was, ahem, uneven, and it just didn’t seem like UCLA fired the imagination of the college football world in any meaningful way. But now, I’d submit that that is changing. There’s Mora. Stud assistant coaches like Adrian Klemm, Demetrice Martin, Jeff Ulbrich, Eric Yarber, Kennedy Polamalu, Angus McClure and Alosi. Hundley with his charisma and Heisman candidacy. Myles Jack’s mind-blowing athleticism, general two-way freakiness, and frankly awesome name that I refuse to shorten. The whole defensive players on the goal-line offense thing (known as “The Pack”). Alternate uniforms that despite their Zoolander-esque names (“L.A. Nights! L.A. Steel! Derek, when are you going to drop Magnum on us, buddy?) are actually pretty good. The Drive. The “Anthony Barr role”, i.e. rush linebacker, that got Barr drafted in the top 10 and seems to be parroted by every defensive recruit Mora is after, and parroted by other programs in recruiting. And even a slogan, “4s Up,” coined by freshman Jaleel Wadood before he even enrolled at UCLA, has caught on. A football-only facility soon to be built. I barely even recognize this program.
Logically, this window should stay open for a few years. No reason to believe it won’t. But emotionally, it just feels like the time is now.
A text sampling of my buddies’ feelings about this season—“Extremely stoked,” “So fired up,” and “Natty time!”—are probably a pretty good window onto the Bruin fans’ collective psyche.
So I’m going with it. Year one under Mora was the miraculous turnaround. Year two was the consolidation of those gains, and strengthening the foundation. Year three should be the season when it all comes together. Bandwagons and superstitions be damned.