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USAC Elections 2024SJP and UC Divest Coalition Demonstrations at UCLA

Pacific Farewell Tour: UCLA football looks to leave a legacy before Big Ten move

(Maleeha Zaman/Daily Bruin)

By Joseph Crosby

Aug. 27, 2023 10:16 p.m.

Conference realignment has been a major story since UCLA and USC’s decision to join the Big Ten. With 2023 representing UCLA football’s final year in the Pac-12 and its last chance to face off against teams like Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado in a conference setting, the season ahead could become a legacy-defining one for the Bruins. Sports editor Joseph Crosby breaks down UCLA’s history against its 2023 opponents and what the upcoming season could mean for the program’s footprint on West Coast football as it embarks on a Pacific Farewell Tour.

The Opener

The Bruins’ opening act of 2023 is much like that of a concert’s opener.

There’s no big-name opponent like LSU two years ago, nor is there a ranked foe. UCLA is facing off with three teams that should help it ease into the main event of conference games.

The season will start with a home game against Coastal Carolina, which UCLA has never played before.

Then, UCLA hits the road to play San Diego State, a team it has beaten in 21 of 23 contests, before returning home for another first-time matchup against North Carolina Central.

The matchup with the Aztecs does present some intrigue, as Chip Kelly is the only head coach in program history to lose to SDSU. However, the week two contest could be the time for Kelly to avenge the 2019 loss, especially as he enters his sixth season with UCLA and has had the chance to build the team’s roster himself.

But as a whole, the first three games feature a pair of new opponents and one the Bruins have dominated.

However, before travelling to Salt Lake City to begin their final Pac-12 slate, the Bruins still need to actually play their first three games. While each contest on its own may not have legacy-defining written all over it, the trio of nonconference matchups are still important.

Multiple nonconference wins kicked off winning seasons in 2021 and 2022, including a 3-0 start last year. Kelly – after struggling in his first three seasons with the Bruins – turned things around and has posted a 17-8 record since 2021. A similar undefeated stretch to begin 2023 could signal big things for the conference contests, especially if Kelly gets strong performances from the skill positions that lost their top performers.

But if Kelly and the Bruins fail to win all three games, the season might be over before it even starts. UCLA is on the outside looking in at five conference opponents in the AP Top 25, and a loss in the first three weeks of the season would make it considerably more difficult for the Bruins to be viewed alongside the cohort of talent atop the Pac-12.

And while a loss against any one of their first three opponents may look more like a small bump in the road than a legacy-ruining defeat, it could be what sends UCLA exiting the Pac-12 with a whimper rather than a bang.”

The Main Event

If Coastal Carolina, SDSU and NC Central are the opening act, then UCLA’s conference slate is the main event.

The Bruins have gone 6-3 in conference play in each of the last two seasons, and even with the losses of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet, the talent across the roster and expectations around the team sets that record as the baseline once again.

Should UCLA fail to reach the six-win figure in conference play this season, the 2021 and 2022 seasons may be seen more as a flash in the pan of success for Kelly and the Bruins. Reaching – or exceeding – that number, however, will reaffirm the decisions to hire the former NFL coach in 2018 and extend him through 2027.

The question of the season then rests on Kelly. Can he win with a roster of new faces? Or will it take three more years for the Bruins to win twice as many conference games as it loses again?

The answer may not be fully known until after the second or third year in the Big Ten, but the beginning of it will start as early as UCLA’s road contest with No. 14 Utah to open Pac-12 play.

The Bruins defeated the Utes for the first time since 2015 at home last season, snapping a five-game losing streak that saw Utah outscore UCLA by 135 total points. Utah quarterback Cameron Rising suffered an ACL injury in last year’s Rose Bowl, and his availability is likely to have a major impact on the outcome of that game.

UCLA will then trek back to the Rose Bowl to face Washington State for the first time since 2019’s 67-63 slugfest in Pullman. The Bruins lead the all-time series over the Cougars 41-20-1, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t extend that to 42 wins this year.

Back-to-back road trips to face No. 18 Oregon State and Stanford come next. The Bruins lost to the Beavers in 2019 but have won 43 of their 64 contests all-time. This season’s game, however, is likely to be a dogfight. Both teams are coming off seasons of nine or more wins, and Oregon State welcomed former Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei as its starter. A win here and the Bruins are in good shape to eclipse that key six conference wins figure.

UCLA will then play a trio of games against Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State – all of which are departing the Pac-12 for the Big 12 after this season – as an appetizer before facing No. 6 USC. Arizona poses the biggest challenge between the Oregon State and USC games, with quarterback Jayden de Laura and the Wildcats looking for back-to-back wins over the Bruins after a thriller at the Rose Bowl last season.

Wins are never guaranteed, but if UCLA reaches the rivalry game with no more than two losses, its season – and Pac-12 legacy – are likely to be in good shape.

The biggest obstacle stopping a “good” season from becoming “great” is the Trojans. Led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, USC is a College Football Playoff hopeful this year. The three-point loss at the Rose Bowl last year adds fuel to UCLA’s fire to bring the Victory Bell back to Westwood, and a win over the Trojans would rapidly elevate the Bruins’ standing in the conference by the end of the season.

A home win over California in the final week is all but assured, so defeating USC is what UCLA needs to have a chance to end up in Las Vegas on Dec. 1.

And in the last year in the conference, clinching a shot at UCLA’s first Pac-12 title since 1998 is a guaranteed way to boost a legacy.

An Encore?

It only takes six wins to be eligible for a Bowl Game.

But the ultimate goal for an encore shouldn’t be relegation to El Paso, Texas, for the Sun Bowl like last season.

Once again, the Bruins should be looking toward Nevada.

Avoiding No. 10 Washington and No. 15 Oregon – both legitimate contenders for the Pac-12 Championship – allows UCLA to evade two of its future Big Ten companions this season, whereas the Trojans have to face the pair in the weeks leading up to their contest with the Bruins.

This scheduling quirk gives UCLA a slightly easier path to the conference title game, but before the Bruins can look ahead to the season’s final two weeks, they’ll have to start at the beginning.

The road to a Las Vegas-themed encore will open in Salt Lake City. A loss to Utah would likely force UCLA to win out in its conference matchups, placing more pressure on the road games against Oregon State, Arizona and USC. A win against the Utes means the team can carry confidence and momentum into its other Pac-12 matchups.

With the strong parity of the Pac-12, a team with two conference losses – like champion Utah last year – could find its way to the title game. Losing zero or one game, however, makes that goal much more attainable.

And if UCLA does reach the conference championship, it would mean Kelly has finally reached the second-highest possible peak in the team’s final year in the Pac-12. Win that game, and that’s the best-case scenario for a final act.

But there are more scenarios to consider.

Reaching the Pac-12 championship game is a tall order, and UCLA ending its regular season at 9-3 like last year seems to be a much more realistic outcome. However, reaching double-digit wins could guarantee a more visible bowl game than the Sun Bowl was.

The Rose Bowl is all but off the table, with the College Football Playoff claiming it for a semifinal contest, leaving the Alamo or Las Vegas Bowls as the two best options. Seven or eight wins may see UCLA give the Holiday Bowl a second attempt, or stay local for the LA Bowl.

Of course, there’s always the opportunity for the encore that fans clamor for, but never comes. A 6-6 season could end the Bruins’ season after they face Cal in late November, and anything worse takes the postseason out of the picture.

But barring a total collapse, an encore feels like a sure-fire end to the Pacific Farewell Tour.

What remains to be seen is just how good that encore will be.

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Joseph Crosby | Sports editor
Crosby is the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats. He is also a fourth-year statistics student.
Crosby is the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats. He is also a fourth-year statistics student.
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