In the aftermath of the Utah game, things look bleak.
The natural impulse is to try, now, given what we've seen, to project the rest of the season; It's difficult, after the team played one of its worst games in many years. But this is what we do here on Bruin Report Online, speculate about things prematurely.
On one hand, the Utah game makes you believe they might not be able to win another game.
On the other, you have to also believe that they will be able to rally, do the us-against-the-world, our-backs-are-against-the-wall type of mentality to motivate themselves to win some games.
You also have to believe that the team you saw against Utah wasn't the real UCLA team, and they're bound to look better.
On the other hand, they could really be that bad.
Again, it's near impossible to put a finger on.
But there are some fairly reliable factors that could affect the rest of the season to consider:
UCLA performs much better in its home games rather than its away games.
It's not hard to see UCLA being better at home in the Rose Bowl against, say, Washington, than on the road against Oregon State. Or being competitive against Cal at home compared to on the road at Washington State the next week. UCLA is 21-5 in the Rose Bowl, which is the 20th best home record in the nation since 2003. But they are 8-15 on the road under Dorrell on the road.
UCLA will do better against teams that don't run spread offenses.
Last season, DeWayne Walker's defense went 3-6 against spread offenses. UCLA gave up an average of just 8 points per game against more pro-style offenses, and an average of 24 points per game against spread offenses.
UCLA, in Karl Dorrell's previous four years as head coach, has generally started stronger and finished weaker.
In 2003, Dorrell started the season 6-2, only to lose the last five games, culminating in one of the worst losses of his time at UCLA so far, in the Silcon Valley Bowl against Fresno State. In 2004, Dorrell started 4-1 and then went 2-5 the rest of the way, ending the season with another bad loss in the Las Vegas Bowl to Wyoming. In 2005, the team started 8-0, and then 2-2 the last four games. Last year, UCLA started 4-1, then lost four straight games, but then righted the ship a bit to win three straight, including the win against USC, before losing in the Emerald Bowl to Florida State.
There are, of course, other factors to consider – mostly injuries and quarterbacking.
The loss of Brigham Harwell to the defensive line for possibly the season is a huge factor. Against Utah, without him, a team that had shown absolutely no capability of running the ball in their first two games, while also missing possibly its best offensive lineman to injury, gained 122 yards. In the two previous games, the Utes had rushed for a total of 73 yards. UCLA's defense looked susceptible to the run without Harwell, and that could possibly give opponents the slight boost they need to get some room on the ground and diversify their offensive attack. If they're susceptible against Utah, you have to wonder how UCLA will do against good running teams like Oregon, Cal, Washington, Washington State, USC and Arizona State.
The effectiveness of the quarterback position is a huge factor. Ben Olson could improve, but it's difficult to believe he'll vastly improve. If Patrick Cowan does take over, he could provide a spark, but he didn't show anything in fall camp to indicate that he has vastly improved since last season (if he had, he might have won the job from Olson). So, realistically, it's reasonable to expect Olson to improve incrementally, or for Cowan to be just about what he was last season.
Given all these factors, looking at UCLA's remaining schedule, it doesn't bode well:
Washington @ the Rose Bowl. This is truly a huge game. Right now, it looms as the biggest game of the season. UCLA has to get itself back on track after Utah, or the season could snowball. It's a game at home, and for UCLA to have a successful season, it must continue to hold serve at home. Looking down the schedule, given the spread-offense factor, the homefield factor, and getting-worse-as-the-season progresses factor, this is a must-win for the Bruins. If they don't get this game in the win column, pulling out a winning season could be difficult. Let's be optimistic and say UCLA finds enough motivation from the Utah game to get up for this game in the Rose Bowl. Let's give this a win. 3-1.
@ Oregon State. Given all of the factors laid out above, this could be the more difficult game than the one against Washington in the Rose Bowl. The scariest thing you can say is that Oregon State beat Utah, 24-7. Their big hiccup was against Cincinnati, 34-3, but they didn't look near as bad as the score, but they got back on track, beating up on lowly Idaho State, 61-10, this week. If there was one spread offense UCLA's defense did well against last year it was Oregon State, but then again the Beavers weren't very good last year and are thought to be much improved this year. And it's on the road for UCLA. We'll call this one a loss. 3-2.
Notre Dame @ the Rose Bowl. Notre Dame clearly looks pretty bad. They have the worse offense in the nation – 119th out of 119 teams. But their defense isn't horrible, and it will more than likely keep the Irish in the game at the Rose Bowl. But, at home, with UCLA's defense going up against a pro-style offense, one that is the worst in the country, you can see this being UCLA's signature defensive game of the year. This has to be a win. 4-2.
California @ home. There can't be a Blue in the house that would, at this point, give this game to UCLA. The only factor that UCLA has going for it is that the game's at the Rose Bowl. That could keep it from being a blow-out, but it's a pretty clear choice to call the Bears the winner here. 4-3.
@ Washington State. Along with the Washington game, this could be the other most critical game remaining on the schedule. If UCLA is going to overcome the Utah debacle and what could be a disappointing season, it has to win these go-either-way games. With how stacked UCLA's schedule is in November and December, this game is a must-win. The problem is, if you go over the factors above, it doesn't look good. It's on the road, against a team UCLA doesn't do well against on the road, by the way (it took an overtime win in UCLA's 10-2 season in 2005 for the Bruins to get its only win in Pullman since 19993). And Washington State runs a good spread offense currently ranked the 22nd best offense in the country, run by an experienced quarterback, Alex Brink, who is ranked the #12 quarterback currently in the nation. Washington State beat up on two lesser opponents and actually played a very good Wisconsin team tough before losing in Madison. As of now, looks like a loss for UCLA. 4-4.
@ Arizona. Watching the Utah game on Saturday, there were flashbacks to the Arizona game in Tucson in 2005. The team was 8-0, ranked #7 in the country, and they were blown out by Arizona, 52-14. The Bruins came back the next week to beat ASU, lost big to USC and then beat Northwestern in the Sun Bowl. But it was very reminiscent of the Utah game since it was an "exposure" game – a game where you felt that UCLA was "exposed" for what it was. This year, however, Arizona looks to be the doormat of the Pac-10, even worse than Just Stanford. Even though it's on the road, UCLA's defense matches up well against Arizona's offense. This has to be a win. 5-4.
Arizona State @ home. Hopefully UCLA is, in fact, 5-4 or better and still in this season by the time the Sun Devils come to town November 3rd. This game begins what UCLA traditionally goes through at the end of the season, a series of three or four very difficult games that has turned Dorrell's seasons south. Arizona State is currently 3-0, with their best win being against Colorado, 33-14, where they overcame a number of turnovers and still dominated the game. It's not a great match-up for UCLA, against a very good spread offense (ranked 24th in the country) and what looks to be one of the best defenses in the Pac-10 (ranked 6th in the country). ASU plays Oregon State in Tempe this weekend, which will be a good indicator as to how good both teams are. They also have to go to Washington State and to Oregon, and also get Washington and Cal at home before they come to the Rose Bowl November 10th. Going out on a limb, wearing the Blue-shaded glasses, we're going to say that Arizona State doesn't hold up through that schedule and proves not to be very good by its date with the Bruins. We'll say that UCLA is still hanging on and hasn't packed it in by them. A win. 6-4.
Oregon @ home. You'd have to be a pretty big homer, though, to project UCLA to win this game against the Ducks, going by what we've seen so far this season. #19-ranked Oregon, right now, looks like a scarier match-up for UCLA than USC. Their spread offense is one of the best in the country (ranked 13th), and it has the kind of athletes as weapons that could make it a long day for UCLA's defense. Under Dorrell, UCLA is 4-7 in November. A loss, 6-5.
USC @ the Coliseum. We won't even analyze it. 6-6.
This doesn't bode well. We're probably even picking UCLA to win games in this projection that, if Las Vegas oddsmakers were making spreads right now, they'd be favored to lose.
UCLA will have to hold serve on the games we projected as wins, and they also have to pull out an upset on the road against at least one of Oregon State or Washington State, to get to 7-5. To get to 8-4, it will have to beat all the teams we've projected them to beat, and either beat both Oregon State and Washington State on the road, or possibly put together a win in one of those road games combined with an upset of Cal or Oregon at home. To get to 9-3, UCLA would probably have to win every game we projected here and beat both Oregon State and Washington State, and one of the games between Cal and Oregon.
Given what UCLA showed this weekend against Utah, that's a tall order. It comes down to UCLA having to turn itself around and vastly improve from the team we've seen in just not the Utah game, but in each of its first three games.
Hopefully that us-against-the-world, our-backs-are-against-the-wall mentality kicks in soon.