For better or worse, and mostly worse recently, I've been a fan of UCLA football. It's not an easy thing to be. From the 2000 season on, the Bruins have had just five winning seasons. They have won just three bowl games, over noted powerhouses New Mexico, Northwestern, and Temple. UCLA has just one win over USC in that time.
UCLA has gone through five coaches in that same time period: Bob Toledo, Ed Kezirian (for one game), Karl Dorrell, DeWayne Walker (also for one game), and now, Rick Neuheisel. The team plays its home games in a beautiful, yet aging stadium, the Rose Bowl, which the student body has a hard time getting to, and the alumni mostly think is too far away from where they live.
For comparison purposes, when I attended UCLA from 1983-87, the Bruins beat the Trojans three out of the four seasons, won the conference twice, won the Rose Bowl twice, and also tossed in victories in the Fiesta Bowl as well as the now defunct Freedom Bowl.
With the exception of Maurice Jones-Drew, few UCLA players are big stars in the NFL. Even more tellingly, there are no former UCLA players playing on the offensive line in the NFL. Nor are there any quarterbacks from UCLA in the NFL. (Matt Moore of Miami played briefly for UCLA before transferring to Oregon State.)
In the local media, UCLA plays in the very long shadow of USC, which is still generating more news than UCLA despite being on probation and ineligible for any bowl games or the new Pac-12 championship. The Bruins don't have a buzz about them. The best they can come up with is a an occasional drone.
Most of the news about the team surrounds the job security of Rick Neuheisel. Speculating about the future of college coaches is pretty much one of two things that the media focuses on when covering a mediocre team. (The other being recruiting.) To most writers, Neuheisel can only save his job if he can get six wins out of this year's team and make it to a bowl game. If not, UCLA will have to go find someone new who wants the job described by Chris Dufresne of the L.A. Times as "a bit like fool's gold."
Rick Neuheisel got the UCLA job because he was supposed to be able to improve recruiting and energize the fan base more so than his rather unexciting predecessor, Karl Dorrell. So far, Neuheisel hasn't delivered much more than Dorrell did except that he is shown on TV yelling at his players a lot. Neuheisel no longer makes postgame speeches to the fans, in part for being mocked for having to give apologies some of the time.
Can UCLA get to six wins? UCLA is halfway there, starting out this season 3-3. None of the wins (over San Jose State, Oregon State, or Washington State) has been particularly impressive. The three losses (to Houston, Texas, and Stanford) all demonstrated the vast talent gulf between UCLA and teams ranked in the Top 25.
The Bruins are off until a week from Thursday when they play at Arizona in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPN. Arizona has started off the season 1-5 and hasn't beaten a team in the Bowl Subdivision (as the NCAA likes to call the top division) this season. And Arizona's coach Mike Stoops was fired on Monday. If UCLA can win in Tucson for the first time since 2003, they could get to six wins by scratching out home wins against Cal on October 29 and Colorado, the Pac-12's new doormat, on November 19. A November 12 game at Utah now looks winnable after the Utes lost their starting quarterback to a shoulder injury.
Neuheisel could tell people stories about losing starting quarterback as it has become an annual occurrence. Last season, UCLA opened with Kevin Prince as the starting quarterback. After four games, Prince was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Richard Brehaut took over, but even he missed a start after suffering a concussion. This year, Prince won the starting job again, only to be sidelined with a concussion in the season-opening loss to Houston.
So, back came Brehaut, who led UCLA to a win over San Jose State. Prince recovered in time to start UCLA's next game against Texas. But, after throwing three interceptions in the first quarter in that game, Brehaut reclaimed the #1 job.
Last Saturday at the Rose Bowl, Brehaut broke his left leg against Washington State. Prince came back on, with UCLA trailing 6-0. He was greeted with boos by a surly home crowd. When Washington State took a 22-14 lead in the fourth quarter, a sizable portion of the crowd headed home. Nevertheless, Prince led the Bruins to two fourth-quarter touchdowns to keep the Bruins fans happy. Or at best, not as unhappy as they were before.
If Prince gets injured again, which history would lead you to believe will happen, freshman Brett Hundley, UCLA's top recruit, would get a chance to start. Hundley, by the way, missed part of preseason practice after hurting himself while playing basketball. After that, Neuheisel may start looking for volunteers on campus. The team has already had to fill a hole at place kicker with Tyler Gonzalez, who had been a manager for the soccer team.
So, for a UCLA fan, a happy ending for this season would be finishing the regular season 6-6, not losing too badly to USC at the Coliseum, and then hoping for either a bowl bid to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco or the Gildan New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque. (Gildan is a clothing company based in Montreal, so they are in the running for the title of most unlikely named sponsor of a bowl game. The Gator Bowl in Jacksonville is sponsored by a tax preparation software company called Taxslayer.)
Should UCLA fans have any hope for next year? Probably not. Oregon and Stanford have taken over as the bullies on the Pac-12 playground. USC will likely return to premier status after its probation is over. The Pac-12 could be expanding to 16 teams in two or three seasons with the possible addition of powerhouses like Oklahoma and Texas. Hoping to earn a trip to Albuquerque may be the most exciting thing UCLA fans can latch on to for quite a while.