Despite the Stanford Loss, UCLA has Arrived

Dec. 3 -- Even though you're depressed over the Stanford loss, don't listen to the naysayers about UCLA football. Going forward, for the next several years, Jim Mora's program will now field some of the most talented, experience teams in UCLA's history, and it's entering a period of what will almost certainly be unprecedented success...

In the aftermath of UCLA’s loss to Stanford last Friday, it probably isn’t the right time to be optimistic.

But it actually is.

The Stanford loss, admittedly, was a tough one to take and, as I said at the time, the most disappointing of the Jim Mora era.

UCLA was primed to take that next step under Mora, and it definitely stumbled.

But if you can see through the bitter disappointment of that loss, there is a pretty nice big picture there, and that is:

UCLA has, actually, arrived.

Yep, it's arrived with some pretty bad fanfare, on the heels of a good regular season that ended on a bad note. But it's arrived all the same.

Now, we’re not quite saying that UCLA football has arrived as one of the super-elite programs in the country, the ones that consistently, year-in and year-out, compete for the College Football Playoffs. It’s tough to do that, and really there are only a small number of programs across the country that are capable of that. Maybe even just Alabama, which like Kentucky in basketball, has a long history of a culture, infrastructure, money and tradition that is powerful enough to make the Crimson Tide part of the national championship equation almost every year. No other program has the resources, support and culture to do that like Alabama. Even Oregon has Phil Knight money to try to buy an elite program and it’s still not in the same zip code as Alabama.

So, reasonably, what should be our expectations for UCLA football? Right now, they should reasonable be pretty high. UCLA, as I’ve said for a long time, has some natural advantages. It sits on one of the best recruiting bases in the nation, and the combination of weather, location and education makes it a pretty special place. Also, in recent years, UCLA has started to invest far more in its football program, so the concept of UCLA football being hamstrung because it’s vastly under-funded is mostly a thing of the past. Once the football-only facility is built within the next year and a half or so, there will be little remnants of UCLA football’s under-funded history. UCLA, of course, does have some limitations, too, which might keep it out of the conversation with the Alabamas of the world (like the vast majority of college football programs). But again, reasonably, it’s probably fair to say that UCLA, with its advantages, should consistently be among the top 15-20 teams in the nation, consistently compete for a Pac-12 championship and have a chance at the College Football Playoffs.

UCLA is probably among 15 or so programs that have enough resources, in this current era of college football, to win a national championship in any given year.

So, UCLA’s goal, then, is to consistently put itself in a position that gives it a chance to do that.

You might not realize it yet, especially coming off the devastating loss to Stanford, but UCLA is right at the point of realizing that goal. Since it didn’t win the Pac-12 Championship and isn’t in the College Football Playoff, you’re probably wondering how I can say it’s there, that it’s arrived. While it hasn’t accomplished any championships yet, Mora has built the program to the point that it makes it all possible, from this point going forward. Perhaps it wasn’t quite there just yet this season, and it was justified that UCLA didn’t literally “arrive” with a conference championship and a berth in the College Football Playoffs this year. But starting with next season, Mora has now put the UCLA program in a position to do just that – thus its arrival.

Yes, we’re raising expectations right here, right now, because, looking at all of the factors, it’s completely justified.

Yeah, again, it’s tough to take this optimism while you’re still trying to shake off the post-Stanford malaise. Right now, all that tends to run through your mind is the mis-steps and the what-ifs of the season (Heck, we have them, too. If Ka’imi Fairbairn’s field goal had gone just a couple of yards the other direction against Utah, our pre-season prediction would have been precisely correctly, down to every game prediction). So, there is still some fallout from Stanford, and it’s almost too soon to be able to step back and take a look at the bigger picture, to objectively analyze the state of the program.

But that’s what we’re doing.

Look at it through this perspective: If that field goal had bent just a few yards the other way, UCLA would be ranked in the top ten in the country, playing Oregon for the Pac-12 Championship, and still be in the College Football Playoff conversation. It's silly, then, to not recognize how good this program has become and where it's going, just because a field goal missed by a couple of yards and UCLA doesn't have the Pac-12 South Championship banner. Other sports media need the titles like that to recognize UCLA as a player now in college football, but we don't. We have a much better and deeper knowledge and understanding of the program, so we can make the statement without having to base it on pure accomplishments, but on intrinsic value.

UCLA, with the 2014 season, has gone through the threshold of trying to get to where it’s going and is now there.

Here's the nuts and bolts why: Mora has consistently cited the youth of the program and, by this time in the season, it sounds like a baseless excuse. The thing is – even if you repeat something over and over and people are tired of hearing it that doesn’t make it untrue. Mora, perhaps, after the Stanford game, didn’t express it well and it probably wasn’t great timing and out of context after that loss to repeat it. By the end of the season, it wasn’t a valid excuse for the loss against Stanford, but in the bigger picture it’s a very valid factor as to why the program, in Mora’s three years, is where it is -- stuck on 9 regular-season wins. Look at it this way: It’s not an excuse anymore, but a reason why UCLA should be very good from here on out, because, starting next season, the teams Mora puts on the field going forward won’t be predominantly young anymore. Three years in, Mora will, starting next year, field a team made up primarily of upperclassmen, for the first time.

That’s hugely significant.

We’re not going to break down the entire depth chart here. But just look at next year’s offensive line, its starters and depth (in fact, you can do that with our just-published analysis of the 2015 offensive line). For the first time in four years, UCLA almost certainly won’t start anyone on the offensive line younger than a true junior. Left tackle Conor McDermott will be in his fourth year in the program and officially be a redshirt junior, but he very well could get granted a sixth year, and be considered a redshirt sophomore in 2015 – and being probably the best OL on the squad, he’ll be the youngest and most inexperienced. The other projected starters -- Alex Redmond, Jake Brendel, Scott Quessenberry and Caleb Benenoch -- will be three juniors and one senior. You hate to say this, because you don't actually want to discourage some 2015 offensive line recruits, but the period of UCLA starting true freshman OLs is over. Next year's OL will have 10 years of starting experience among all five of them. They'll probably be considered pre-season one of the best OLs in the Pac-12 and perhaps the country. That doesn’t even count former starter Simon Goines, who will be back from injury as a redshirt junior, incoming JC tackle Zach Bateman (a junior), who will definitely compete to start, and then a very competitive bench in Poasi Moala (R-So.), Kenny Lacy (R-So.), and Najee Toran (So.), along with what could end up being the #1 offensive line recruiting class in the nation for 2015. That’s experienced talent and depth like UCLA hasn’t seen on the offensive line in probably 17 years, if ever.

On offense, UCLA returns all of its starters, other than Brett Hundley. On defense, it will lose Eric Kendrick, which is admittedly a big loss, Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Anthony Jefferson (even though there is some discussion that Jefferson could be granted a sixth year), but will have some considerable – and experienced – talent it will plug in to make up for it. The defense, like the offense, then, will be populated with almost all experienced upperclassmen, for the first time in a very long time. In fact, next year’s defense will have the combination of the most talent and experience of any UCLA defense perhaps since the 1980s.

Without the banners being waved and the trumpets blaring, this is called arriving. Mora has recruited really well since he’s been at UCLA, on a level over a three-year span that UCLA has never seen. All of that talent is now coming of age.

And here’s the thing: you could make the case, still, that the 2015 Bruins will still be young. We don't want to give Mora the excuse for next year, and I would bet he probably wouldn't use it anyway, given the flak he's gotten for using it this season but, if you project out the defense, there will be only one senior starter (cornerback Fabian Moreau). On offense, just four seniors. In other words, while UCLA will have “arrived” finally in terms of its experienced talent, it’s still a shade young, and not experienced and mature like Stanford teams, that commonly field upward of 6-8 seniors on both sides of the ball. So, there is still even more upside in terms of getting experienced talent on the field over the next several years.

So, looking at even the bigger picture, it’s just not about next season when, for the first time, UCLA has a decent amount of older, developed talent. It’s about the next several years, and the fact that UCLA, now, should be plugging in a high-level of experienced talent in most of its positions every year for the foreseeable future. For Mora up until this point, it's been about re-building the program; from here on out it will be about re-loading.

We're venturing into an era unprecedented in the history of UCLA football.

Ending the season on such a sour note with the Stanford loss could have an impact on recruiting (and probably already has). But again, that’s the little picture. While recruiting, of course, is vital, one more or one less defensive end recruit for 2015 isn’t going to make or break the program with the talent it now has stockpiled – not like it would back in the Dorrell or Neuheisel eras, or even at the beginning of the Mora era. It’s key that the program continues to recruit well and addresses some important recruiting needs with the 2015 class to keep the talent pipeline flowing (a story analyzing this is coming soon). But as of right now, UCLA’s 2015 class has the nation’s second-highest average-star ranking (3.87) behind just Alabama (3.90) in the Team Rankings. That’s right, only behind Alabama, that program that is truly alone at the top of the college football world.

Mora won more games in his first three seasons than any coach in UCLA history with leftovers from Neuheisel, and his own recruits while they were still very young. He, then, has recruited better in his first three seasons than any coach in UCLA history. UCLA just signed the #1 quarterback in the nation, Josh Rosen, something it has never done. We are now embarking on the Josh Rosen era, which definitely has a chance to be much better than the Brett Hundley era. And UCLA, during the Josh Rosen era, is going to have a great deal of experienced talent around what is perhaps the most talented quarterback prospect to come out of the west in a very long time.

It’s amazing, really, how far UCLA has come in such a short time. Like with anything, to appreciate where you are you have to definitely recognize where you’ve come from. As I said previously, if you were able to go back three years ago and tell yourself that UCLA would put together at least 28 wins in the next three years, you’d be ecstatic, given where the program came from. A poster on the Premium Football Message board said today: “You know times have changed when 10 wins is a disappointment.”

Expectations, though, should be high. Mora himself would want everyone to have very high expectations for the program, as he does. Right now, the depressed mindset of the UCLA football fan after Stanford doesn’t stem from expectations being currently too high, but potentially that they just got ahead of themselves a little.

I’m saying now is the time, not just for next season but for the next several seasons, for expectations to tick up a notch.

Many reporters don’t really get this, or the UCLA football program. There have been many stories in the Stanford fallout talking about how UCLA just isn’t there, that it was “just like UCLA” to get to the brink and stumble. Since those writers don’t know the program, and only base their views on obvious signposts, they need the team to literally win championships for them to be able to process that the program has arrived. We here at Bruin Report Online have an advantage over other news sources since we’re so much more familiar with the program, year in and year out. We’ve been pessimistic in the past with the program when it warranted it, but right now, even after the Stanford disappointment, you might not realize, heading into the next few seasons, given what Mora has built, it’s probably the most optimistic time ever for the UCLA football program.

So, we're telling you, despite that post-Stanford depression, you should be feeling just about the best you ever have about UCLA football.

And here’s more: We mentioned that UCLA has some limitations that, in the past, has kept it out of the rarified company of the traditional, super-elite college football programs. Well, there are now less and less of those limitations. When the football-only facility is built, there won’t be much left that resembles the old UCLA football program (We just ask of Mora that he retains those pretty blue home uniforms since we all know he wants to change UCLA’s primary color to black). This has all happened under Mora in just a handful of years. So, it’s not completely farfetched to perhaps envision UCLA busting through that threshold of being among the top 15-20 teams in the country, and actually breaking into the rarified air of college football’s utmost elite. It would be completely new ground for the UCLA program, and transcend its history but, with Mora and the improved resources, it's now feasible compared to impossible.

So, remember we said it here and now, at a time when everyone else is dismissing the UCLA football program: the next few years the program should have unprecedented success, and the bandwagon is going to get crowded so you should reserve your seat now.

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