Christon Chronicles: UCLA football finds stride, paves season opening with possibility
No. 13 UCLA football has yet to win the Pac-12 championship since 1998, but it is currently tied for first place in the Pac-12 following its best two-game start to a season since 2017. The Bruins are coming off of a 38-27 win over then-No. 16 LSU on Sept. 4. (Anika Chakrabarti/Assistant Photo editor)
By Jon Christon
Sept. 12, 2021 4:30 p.m.
Here at the Daily Bruin, we have written quite a few columns about UCLA football’s dark days.
Ranging from coach Chip Kelly’s shortcomings and the lack of a true fanbase to the desperate need to upgrade uniforms, time and again my predecessors very justly poked holes at the faults of the program over the past few years.
But this isn’t like the columns of years past – the Bruins have turned a corner in seemingly every way.
No. 13 UCLA has started off the season 2-0, its best start to a season since 2017. The Bruins’ most recent win – a 38-27 beatdown of then-No. 16 LSU on national television – is arguably the most significant win in the Kelly era and was their highest-ranked victory since 2015, putting them in the AP Top 25 for the first time in four years.
The most encouraging part of the pair of wins is the fact that UCLA is truly showing signs of growth from recent seasons. Its offense looks like it has finally found a groove by dominating teams on the ground, while senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has shown a level of decision-making unseen in the past.
After hemorrhaging points defensively – giving up 33.6 points per game from 2018-2020 – the Bruins now look the part of an elite defensive unit, holding their two opponents to just 37 points combined to start 2021.
And while UCLA seems to have found its stride, the rest of the Pac-12 seems to be losing theirs.
Week one started almost as bad as the conference could start, with six of the 12 teams losing in the opening week. Among the worst losses were then-No. 20 Washington losing to Football Championship Subdivision school Montana, Stanford losing to Big 12 bottom feeder Kansas State and Washington State losing to Utah State after leading late in the fourth quarter.
The conference showed signs of life to start week two, with then-No. 12 Oregon upsetting then-No. 3 Ohio State in the morning, but come nightfall, the Pac-12 was still the Pac-12. Washington lost again, and UCLA’s South division rivals in then-No. 14 USC and then-No. 21 Utah both were taken down in the last games of the day and are now unranked.
The Bruins are currently tied for first place in the Pac-12 South and are already in prime position for a conference championship appearance given the state of the rest of the division.
But what about the bigger picture?
Sure, a run at a Pac-12 championship would be huge in its own right. The Bruins haven’t won the conference crown since 1998, which also marks the last season they played in the actual Rose Bowl game, as opposed to their home games masquerading as such.
However, UCLA should have its eye on something much bigger. A College Football Playoff appearance isn’t outside the realm of possibilities.
The odds of that happening are extremely slim, and if I were a betting man, I would strongly bet against it. But, while long, the odds are still considerably higher than they were at the start of the season with a theoretical pathway now presenting itself. So let’s engage with it.
For starters, UCLA would most likely have to go undefeated. A one-loss Pac-12 team probably isn’t getting picked by the selection committee considering the conference’s history, or lack thereof, in the playoff.
While the conference’s early season missteps may help UCLA rack up the wins, the Bruins would also have to hope that the rest of the Pac-12 picks up their act in the hope of salvaging the possibility of a few signature wins. An undefeated Power Five team should be safe, but a few ranked wins never hurt anyone.
Beyond its LSU triumph, UCLA’s signature wins could come from a number of games. Road contests against USC and Utah are significant even with their early losses, and a homecoming win over a presumably highly-ranked Oregon team in October could be the cherry on top.
Again, this should all be taken in moderation. A UCLA playoff appearance is most likely not happening, and the Bruins’ margin for error is razor-thin. However, the fact that the possibility still exists after two games shows just how much the program’s stock has risen in such a short period of time.
Right now, everything is on the table.
Previously one of college football’s sleeping giants, UCLA is finally starting to wake up.