When Utah and Colorado officially joined the Pac-12 a year ago, there were many facts trumpeted about the conference. The prestige! The history! The championships!
And people went gaga over the idea of their teams playing all the legendary programs. Especially UCLA. The Bruins!
UCLA may have the “most impressive collegiate sports history of any university in the nation,” as the Bruins’ website blares. But in football terms — which is all any fan really seemed to care about — UCLA was a non-starter. The program had been to a total of one BCS game, which is as many as Oregon State and one fewer than the Utes.
There were many things to get excited about with the Pac-12, but beyond playing in the Rose Bowl — earmuffs, Westwood — UCLA wasn’t really one of them.
Through two weeks of football season, UCLA is the most exciting and interesting team in the Pac-12. Now, that may not last. And the Bruins are not likely BCS-bound this season. But suddenly, there’s the idea of playing UCLA — which Utah does on Oct. 13 — comes with a thrill. In Pasadena!
The Bruins suddenly have the Pac-12’s most exciting offense (sit on it, Oregon), best quarterback-running back combo and the most talked-about coach.
Last week, in one of the greatest weekends in the history of the Pac-10/12, UCLA shone the brightest. Behind 217 rushing yards from Johnathan Franklin (that’s a season average of 215.5) the Bruins got into a shootout with No. 16 Nebraska and won, 36-30.
That’s the kind of victory that can stir some excitement in Jim Mora Jr.’s program. The Los Angeles Times pointed out that a billboard in Westwood recently became vacant when an image of Matt Barkley was removed (probably a good move for safety reasons alone). Better plaster a photo of Franklin up there before his season average dips below 200 yards. Or stick him up there with Brett Hundley, the dynamic dual-threat quarterback that Rick Neuheisel, now a Pac-12 Networks talking head, opted to redshirt last year.
What Neuheisel couldn’t accomplish in four seasons at UCLA, Mora has in two games. The base is rallied and the team isn’t total dreck.
Some will point to last year, when the Bruins “won” the Pac-12 South and “competed” against Oregon for the conference championship. Bear in mind that the Bruins only earned that bid thanks to USC’s postseason ban and Utah’s implosion against Colorado. Those Bruins finished 6-7.
This year it’s different. The Bruins, who rank in the top 20 nationally in the significant offensive categories, could win the South outright, if they managed an upset of USC on Nov. 17.
Who would have even thought about saying such a thing in the preseason?
Ultimately, that is good for the Pac-12. There is something about that powder blue team being successful. It breeds hatred, instead of the sympathy UCLA has generally earned as USC’s crosstown whipping boy over the last decade.
And hate is very good.
The Bruins, of course, will have to back up their weekend performance, starting this weekend against Houston and on Sept. 22 against Oregon State, which defeated No. 13 Wisconsin on Saturday. Sustain a loss there, and it will be the same old UCLA, providing surges of hope and intrigue, and falling back to the doldrums of mediocrity.
Goodness, it almost seems inevitable. But until then ... Bruins!