The bottom line
Expectations depend on where you stand at the moment.
Around Baton Rouge, Louisiana State Coach Les Miles can say, “I can tell you that coming off last year, eight victories and a bowl win was not enough,” and no one bats an eye.
Around Westwood, any prediction involving eight victories and a bowl win and Bruins fans might start whistling Dixie.
After a 4-8 record last season, UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel has set the bar at reaching the postseason. And while he shies away from putting numbers to it, that goal makes a bowl-eligible 6-6 record acceptable.
Of course, 6-6 and a bowl game was how Karl Dorrell exited two years ago. But that came two seasons after a 10-2 record in 2005, when the Bruins and their fans really did think the college football monopoly in Los Angeles was over.
Because Neuheisel is in only his second year as coach, time remains an ally and he can still point to the future.
“There’s a paranoia in coaching, a sense that everybody is ahead of you and you’ve got to go do this to catch up, whatever this is,” Neuheisel said. “I’ve got a sense of calm that we’re on the right track. The secret is the people, keep motivating the people that we’re going in the right direction.”
Neuheisel says he’s been asked, “How many wins?”
“I don’t know; we just want to be in postseason,” he said. “I’d love to win 11 or 12 games. But our goal is to keep the momentum. The people who watch our program need to see a vast improvement this year, and also year to year.”
The Bruins lost four of their last five in 2008 and finished with the program’s worst record since 3-7-1 in 1989. That was followed by an NFL draft where no UCLA players were selected for only the second time in 50 years.
Rock bottom? UCLA fans hope so.
The Bruins have not been to a Rose Bowl in 10 years, matching the longest drought in school history (1965-75) since the Pacific 10 Conference champion was automatically sent to the game. No one expects that streak to be broken, but a bowl game -- any bowl game -- this season would be a tangible sign of progress.
“We do not want to be a middle-of-the-road program,” Neuheisel said. “We may have to go through that patch to get to where we want to go.”
UCLA was ranked fourth in the nation heading into Week 7 of the 2001 season. Since that point, the Bruins have a 48-46 record -- USC is 86-10 over that same period -- and the only bowl games have been anything but rosy: El Paso, San Jose, twice to Las Vegas with an interim coach.
The unraveling seemed complete in 2008.
Neuheisel said, “I don’t think magic is how you do it. It’s recruiting great football players. The greatest coach in the country will tell you that’s what it comes down to.”
Two years have netted what Neuheisel says he believes are two strong recruiting classes. After a recent post-practice team meeting, Neuheisel had all the freshmen and redshirt freshmen identify themselves, with 44 of 84 players raising their hands.
“I was really surprised,” senior wide receiver Terrence Austin said. “I honestly did not know that we were that young. We are a team of freshmen and redshirt freshmen and sophomores. I didn’t really count the seniors, but looking around at the freshmen, when we leave, we won’t really be missed.”
Of the 40 players expected to play prominent roles this season, 20 have been in the program two years or less. That is tilted considerably toward the offense, where redshirt freshman Kevin Prince is quarterback, leading Neuheisel to a “run the ball or die trying” philosophy.
At least eight players on offense are expected to make their collegiate debuts against San Diego State on Saturday.
That would seem to put the onus on a talented but thin defense. The Bruins have high-end players such as defensive tackle Brian Price, linebacker Reggie Carter and cornerback Alterraun Verner. The talent tipped toward the defense last season as well, but it was a group that was worn down. UCLA opponents ran more than 70 plays in five of 12 games in 2008.
“We need everybody, offense and defense, to do their jobs,” senior linebacker Kyle Bosworth said. “No more 60- or 70-play games would be a plus in our basket. If [the offense] stays on the field, keeps possession, scores some points, that’s keeps us fresh.”
What will follow varies from player to player.
“A successful season is winning the Pac-10; that’s all I will settle for right now,” Verner said. “Others may have lower expectations, but I think we have enough talent to contend for the Pac-10 championship.”
Or . . .
“We have to go to a bowl game and we have to win it,” sophomore safety Rahim Moore said. “We can make our coach look good. He puts us out there and talks good about us. We’ve got to go out there and make him look good.”
But one thing players agree on: “A 4-8 record is bad by anyone’s standards,” Bosworth said. “Everyone on this team has that bitter taste in their mouth.”
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UCLA’s bowl games since the 2000 season:
2007 LAS VEGAS
Florida State... 44
2004 LAS VEGAS
2003 SILICON VALLEY
Fresno State... 17
2002 LAS VEGAS
New Mexico... 13