UCLA isn’t in the midst of some bone-dry bowl drought, but it’s been a while since the Bruins were a player on the national scale.
The last time UCLA finished with more than seven wins was in 2005 when they finished 10-2 and ended the year with a 50-38 Sun Bowl win over Northwestern. Before that, the Bruins hadn’t won more than seven games since 1997 and 1998 when they also finished 10-2—which is also the last time UCLA won its conference.
The Bruins may not have the prestigious history of their cross-town rivals, but that doesn’t exactly make a six- or seven-win norm okay in the minds of fans. It’s been over a decade since the team that plays its home games at the Rose Bowl has played in the bowl game of the same name; and it can’t feel good to have watched the Trojans played in the game five times (with four wins) since they last did.
Unfortunately for Bruins fans, however, UCLA doesn’t yet appear ready to take that step back into the national spotlight to which fans grew accustomed under Terry Donahue and in the first part of Bob Toledo’s tenure.
Before they’re able to do that, consistency and avoiding injuries will be key—especially at the game’s most important position. Injuries have plagued Bruins quarterbacks such as Kevin Prince, Kevin Craft, Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan over the past few years, and nobody has really grabbed the reins of the offense thanks in large part to the injuries that can disrupt a player’s development. This year, Prince and Richard Brehaut have experience, while highly-touted true freshman Brett Hundley will factor into the battle for the starting job, although many expect him to redshirt. Prince did not practice in the spring as he recovers from knee surgery.
There are also questions on the offensive line, but defensively the Bruins could see some improvement behind a deep front and an impressive linebacker corps. Yet for UCLA to turn in a season worthy of a bowl invite, the offense needs to figure out how to move the ball through the air to complement a backfield with some talented running backs.
Rick Neuheisel’s seat is starting to get hotter with each subpar season. He led the Bruins to the Eagle Bank Bowl in ’09 and finished 7-6, but has otherwise turned in a couple of 4-8 seasons. There’s definitely reason to expect a bowl invite this year if you’re a Bruins fan, as the defense and running game should be very good; but until the quarterback play becomes more consistent and injuries stop keeping key players from playing or practicing (such as a few offensive linemen this year), the Bruins appear likely to find themselves buried in the Pac-12 standings.
As for a return to the national spotlight, UCLA hopes that Hundley eventually takes control of the reins to give the position some solidity if not this season then over the next couple. There are hundreds of examples of teams without a consistent, clearly-defined quarterback position playing well and having success, but if a Bruins quarterback emerges as the clear-cut leader of this team at some point in the near future, it’ll go a long way.
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