Expectations Start Next Season

With one week to go in the football season, Dave Woods, a new sometime-columnist, takes a whack at the depressing season, putting it in perspective, and he tries to see the bigger picture and look toward what looks to be a far more promising 2009 season...

I don't think many would call me an expert on college football. I covered UCLA football for three years for the Daily Bruin (2005-07), but I managed to do it with such a lack of verve and zest that it's likely Karl Dorrell didn't know my name (let alone my birthday). Still, given all the "good" practices and abysmal games I witnessed, I would go so far as to say I'm at least an educated observer of UCLA football.

Which brings us to this season.

I graduated last spring, so I had some limited exposure to practice in the late summer. I wanted to see how things would change under Rick Neuheisel -- mostly, I just wanted to see if he would stand within 50 yards of the team while ostensibly coaching. The Dorrell era had scarred me enough that even such a small positive step as a literal step closer to the players practicing would have me supporting Neuheisel until his dying day. We take the small victories here at UCLA.

But beyond watching Neuheisel coach, there were some other things I took away from practice: 1) the running backs were actually doing running back drills (a novel development, according to one former player), and 2) Freshman Kevin Prince certainly looked like the best quarterback out there. I went to something like five practices in the middle of the fall camp period. Prince outplayed the other quarterbacks during that time, showed accuracy, pocket presence, good mechanics, and at least a decent arm. But even then, I figured if all other factors remained the same, he probably wouldn't be starting the season for UCLA. Given that UCLA's offensive line was generously expected to be abysmal; that Prince hadn't thrown a pass in anger in about a year; that he was coming off a serious injury; and that Kevin Craft had just dominated in junior college the previous year, there was going to have to be a major difference in the play of Prince and Craft for Prince to take the starting job. And there simply wasn't. Prince looked a little bit better, but not better enough to make up for all the factors laid against him.

Regardless, the differences in the two quarterbacks then were about nil. After 11 games of live action football, I'd wager that Craft is a fair bit better than Prince right now simply because of all the reps he has gotten in the offense. But, bear with me now: it doesn't matter. Regardless of who had started the season, I think we'd still be staring at 4-7 right now simply because that's the team we have. Arguing about whether Prince, Craft, or Chris Forcier (a guy who was never really in the competition for good reason) should be starting is like arguing about which color icing we should use on the crap cake. It's still going to taste like crap.

And why put Prince or Forcier back there to get rocked repeatedly by Pac-10 level defensive players, when you could put in Craft, who's at least been up against a college pass rush before? This season was never going to be a grand success. The only grand success of this season will be if UCLA's quarterbacks survive it.

If Ben Olson or Pat Cowan had been healthy to start the season, maybe things would be different. But right now UCLA's options at quarterback are a gunslinger with a peashooter (Craft), a redshirting freshman coming off a major injury (Prince), a guy who simply does not understand that a quarterback has to throw the ball (Forcier), and a guy who looked like he would be a really good wide receiver (Osaar). It's almost astonishing UCLA has won four games.

We also have to take into account that UCLA is absolutely snake-bitten. Olson broke his foot in the same place, on the same non-contact drill, twice. Cowan tore his knee doing basically nothing. They did it on successive plays in one spring practice.  Heck, they were taken off the practice field on the same cart. Given either of those guys back, I think we're staring at a berth in another classic mid-to-late December bowl game. Again, just a slightly brighter icing on the crap cake.

Look, this season was a nothing season from the beginning. Despite the fact that I've wagered money on UCLA to go 12-0 only semi-facetiously for the last 3 years, I think we all understood that there wasn't much in UCLA's favor this year. Neither Olson nor Cowan were going to be Cade McNown (or even Drew Olson) all of a sudden. UCLA's offensive line was not going to be much better than way below average. UCLA's defense was probably going to be about as good as previous years, but the offense was going to be just as bad as previous years, if not worse. So reasonably, I think we all were justified in saying that six or seven wins was the best we could hope for -- if everything went PERFECTLY. Well, nothing ever goes perfectly with UCLA football. The offensive line (as a unit) went down with an injury, both real quarterbacks went down and left us with simply guys who possess arms, Kahlil Bell broke himself again, and Matt Slater graduated, which proved to be a much greater loss than anyone apparently realizes.

So we are left with games like this past Friday's loss to ASU. I think we just have to learn to revel in it a little bit. I remember after McLeod Bethel-Thompson had something like five turnovers against Notre Dame I got in a vehement argument with a friend of mine where I was strongly of the belief that at least two of those turnovers were not his fault. So let's look at Craft's interceptions and try to figure out what he was seeing. Like that one after the second pick-six on Friday. It was a laser, right into the bread basket of the ASU guy. Where did he think it was going? Did he mean it to be a pump-fake and just got caught up in the moment? Did he want to see if he could throw it through him? Did he figure that if he injured the guy's hands someone else would have to catch his next interception? Was it simply out of spite against Neuheisel for all the times he yelled at him on regional TV? These are the questions we should ask ourselves.

And on Craft's sacks, when the offensive line as a unit just falls over onto its back, play the game of asking yourself whether a) the offensive line is that bad or b) it was just a screen play where Craft couldn't get the throw off.

I'm not ruling out an interception drinking game for the USC game.

We've got one more game this season, and it'll probably be ugly. UCLA doesn't even really have a puncher's chance. Walker's defense is going to have to pull out another 13-9-esque miracle and still UCLA will probably be on the losing end of that this time. Norm Chow is good, but USC's defense is made up of a bunch of huge, fast guys. If UCLA can keep them from scoring too many points when UCLA is on offense, the final score might look respectable. But I think we're staring at a blowout.

And you know what? That's fine. This season was going to be a mess to start with, and more mess just piled up as the season went on. We've seen some bright spots (Nelson Rosario is every bit as good as expected; the defense has really come on strong toward the end of the season with some young players stepping up; Derrick Coleman has played decently as a freshman and only had two egregious fumbles, and Norm Chow has not quit out of frustration), but all in all, everything has gone from bad to worse. So as this season slowly winds it way around the toilet bowl, let's bear in mind that we didn't have expectations for good things this year. Let's remember that UCLA still has two good coordinators and a potentially good head coach. Let's remember that the coaching staff probably didn't want to get any young players killed this year, which may explain some personnel decisions. And let's remember that hope we had in January, when Neuheisel was hired. It shouldn't be tainted by a year that everyone should have realized was destined more for the toilet bowl than even the Vegas Bowl.

So, onto next year. The offensive line, that porous, spongy mass, returns with a year of experience and weight gain. I'm going to spot it a few points on the scale and just say it'll be slightly below average next year. Craft returns and, after a year in the offense, I figure he'll look about as serviceable as Pat Cowan did when healthy (which I think we'd all sacrifice various appendages for at this point). The running back situation should be wildly better as the two best running backs (Christian Ramirez and Milton Knox) finally see the field. And the young wide receivers should have the opportunity to assert themselves and make plays. I'll just throw out a totally arbitrary number and say they should be able to score 22 to 25 points a game as an offense.

The defense, if Walker doesn't choose to leave, should be about as good as it has been each year here, and always with the next-year-in-Jerusalem hope that he has figured out how to defend against the spread offense. There'll be good speed on the field, so maybe even the dreaded spread will finally be handled. We can all dream the impossible dream.

I think that team looks average to above average, which, given the schedule, should mean something like 8 or 9 wins.

So let's consider this season a wash. Next year is when we can have some halfway real expectations (but even then, injuries like the ones sustained this year make all win-loss expectations non-applicable). But until then, let's just see if we can ride out the rest of this dreary season and hope for clear skies ahead.

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