Chip Kelly doesn’t care what you think about his program, the one that has only seven wins during his two-year watch and couldn’t even fill seats when the school was giving tickets away for free.
“Perception isn’t what we’re worried about,” Kelly said. “We’re worried about the reality.”
The reality is that the Bruins, at 4-7 overall and 4-4 in Pac-12 Conference play, are guaranteed their fourth straight losing season, the program’s first such streak since the 1920s when the school was called the Southern Branch. Kelly’s seven wins in two years equal the number of total losses he had in four years as Oregon’s head coach.
The Bruins are left with Saturday’s season finale against California at the Rose Bowl as a last chance to leave a good impression for a disappointed fan base before yet another long offseason.
“The reason why we come out here and play is for the UCLA community,” long snapper Johnny Den Bleyker said, “so to go out there and win, go 5-7, have them feel a little bit more comfortable going into next year, I think that’s very important.”
With the Bruins out of bowl contention and coming off a 52-35 loss to rival USC in which the defense was demoralized by a record-setting Trojan passing attack, UCLA is in danger of making another entry into the history books. UCLA is on pace to set a record low for average home attendance in the season with the current rate of 44,998 fans trailing the current low mark of 49,107 set in 1995.
A win Saturday against Cal (6-5, 3-5) would give UCLA its first winning record in Pac-12 play since 2015. Since 2006, when the Pac-10 moved to a nine-game conference schedule, no team finished above .500 in conference play and did not play in a bowl game.
Even getting close to bowl contention seemed like a longshot for these Bruins earlier this season. They lost to San Diego State for the first time in the 23-game series. They needed a too-improbable-for-Hollywood comeback to stun Washington State and lost to conference cellar dweller Oregon State.
A three-game winning streak gave the impression of hope.
Back-to-back blowout losses to Utah and USC crushed it.
The offense has shown minor improvement from last season, boosting its scoring per game from 24.6 points to 27.5, but the defense regressed in most major statistical categories. UCLA ranks 129th out of 130 FBS teams in passing yards allowed per game with 318.1.
For players who attest that Kelly and his staff are the right ones to lead UCLA’s resurgence, they are left clinging to the behind-the-scenes victories to maintain optimism about the program.
“Even though it doesn’t show record-wise, it’s on an upward trajectory as far as the knowledge and the wisdom that’s being poured into this program,” said senior linebacker Krys Barnes, whose status is questionable for Saturday because of a knee injury, “and to the youth that is coming in, it’s tremendous.”
UCLA is set to lose only two starters on offense — running back Joshua Kelley and center Boss Tagaloa — to graduation. The defense will lose all of its starting linebackers — Barnes, Lokeni Toailoa, Josh Woods and Keisean Lucier-South — but had young players like freshman linebacker Carl Jones and redshirt freshman safety Elisha Guidry earn experience after injuries to teammates.
“It’s the cards we were dealt with so we gotta make do with what we have,” redshirt junior tight end Devin Asiasi said. “We got one more game left so we gotta finish strong. Then in this offseason, prepare and just get better each and every week.”