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UCLA is No. 5 in the 'Super 16'

UCLASportsCollege FootballFootballUCLA BruinsCollege SportsPac-12 Conference
Bruins have the talent to reach first four-team playoff
Last time UCLA was this close, the Bruins lost a heartbreaker to Miami in 1998
The Pac-12 is deep, but a one-loss conference champion should make the playoff

Acknowledging that college football's new four-team playoff could someday inch toward a larger basketball-style tournament, we continue our Super 16 countdown, with No. 5, UCLA:

UCLA's periodic forays into national title contention tend to fall in years when college football unveils a new postseason plan.

The Bowl Championship Series started in 1998 with UCLA debuting at No.1 in that October's first standings.

Working in UCLA's favor that year was Cade McNown at quarterback and, for a while at least, the Bruins' favorable quartile rank.

As fate had it, UCLA lasted only one week on top and never again appeared at No. 1.

The Bruins were cursed that year by a porous defense and a hurricane that postponed an early-season game at Miami.

The game was rescheduled game for Dec. 5 and UCLA suffered a heart-wrenching 49-45 defeat. The Bruins could have won the game 15 times over by making something known in football parlance as a "tackle."

Victory would have put UCLA in the first BCS title game, at Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium, against Tennessee.

If only UCLA had played that game under today's rules. A ruled fumble by receiver Brad Melsby would have been overturned by instant replay review. Melsby's knee would have been ruled down and UCLA probably would have run out the clock for a 45-42 win.

UCLA finished fifth in the final BCS standings behind Tennessee, Florida State, Kansas State and Ohio State. But had there been a four-team playoff that year, the selection committee might have awarded UCLA the fourth spot.

And so here we are, 16 years later, with UCLA sitting again on the national doorstep. Nostalgically, we have started the Bruins where they finished in the 1998 BCS standings: fifth.

It puts UCLA in not-quite-playoff position, but also with directions on how to get there.

The playoff talk started when quarterback Brett Hundley decided to forgo the NFL draft and return to campus for one last shot at glory.

Jim Mora's third year as coach sets up as UCLA's best in years. The schedule has everything a selection committee would want.

In the new system, unlike 1998, UCLA might even be able to absorb a loss and still make the playoffs.

Let's say the Bruins lose at home to Oregon on Oct. 11, but go on to beat Oregon in a rematch for the Pac-12 title. It is easy to think the one-loss champions of the nation's second-best conference would get one of the four spots.

Of course, defending Pac-12 South champion Arizona State may have a say in UCLA's playoff plans when the Bruins play the Sun Devils in Tempe on Sept. 25. And USC, we hear, is eager to snap a two-game losing streak against its crosstown rival.

Mora is smart to downplay all this playoff talk. His dad Jim once ranted famously on that subject.

The coach is carefully couching what is possible for his Bruins. "Lot of expectations out there, as I've read, for our team," he said.

It's ultimately up to the Bruins to write their history.

UCLA's playoff dreams could be derailed by any number of issues or formidable opponents.

Doesn't the road to the Pac-12 title still run through Stanford, which has defeated UCLA six straight seasons since 2008?

The Bruins' last win over Oregon was in 2007, after the Ducks lost star quarterback Dennis Dixon to a season-ending knee injury.

UCLA football has always favored the overachieving, underdog role. The Bruins have not always responded well when the spotlight shines in their eyes.

Who will ever forget that dreadful trip to Utah in 2007?

Yet, UCLA — gulp — was picked to win the Pac-12 South and is a top-10 choice nationally in all the credible preseason indexes.

It doesn't take a "Jeopardy!" champion to recognize the talent in Hundley, Myles Jack, Jordon James, Eddie Vanderdoes and Eric Kendricks.

Talent only matters, ultimately, if it delivers on the promise.

It's not every year, though, that you get a legitimate shot to play for all the things you play for in the first place.

In UCLA's case, that's first place.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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