If you’re a UCLA fan, last night’s thrilling national title game between Alabama and Georgia should bring you some optimism for the future. Both teams were different versions of the same coin of what UCLA can aspire to be under Chip Kelly.
Yes, I know we’ve done this before, talking about football monopolies being over and Bruin Revolutions and S1ORMs 8RUIN and what not. You can expect at least 2 or 3 articles to be written about underachieving programs in college football this offseason, and UCLA will be somewhere near the very top of every list.
Additionally, you won’t find UCLA on any “way too early” top 25 rankings that will come out this week, nor will they be close. There’s good reason for that - UCLA did finish 6-7 with one of the worst run defenses in modern college football history. Good football teams are made of sterner stuff.
But this is different.
UCLA fans can take heart and see the vision in the game that played out last night. You just have to look. Rick Neuheisel and Jim Mora are fine football men, but they’re not Chip Kelly.
And Chip Kelly has the stern stuff to take a perennial college football underachiever to the pinnacle of the sport.
Start with Alabama.
Nick Saban is possibly the best coach the sport’s ever seen. Five titles in 9 years is a ridiculous run, and now he’s doing it with TRUE FRESHMEN in the 4th quarters of national title games.
Aside from being a relentless recruiter, Saban is also a master tactician. A Bill Belichick disciple, his coverage schemes have stifled most of the spread offenses now common in college football. Notice how it’s been either an act of God (the Kick Six, Trevor Knight playing the best game of his life) or a transcendent player (Deshaun Watson, Ezekiel Elliott, Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton) that’s beaten him.
Saban’s background is in defense under Bill Belichick, and he’s brought the same intense game planning and scheming to college. His intricate coverage schemes are all over college football as defenses try to keep up with the proliferation of spread offenses. From his time as the defensive coordinator for the Brows in the mid-90s, Saban has been on the forefront of stopping spread offenses for over 25 years.
In a similar vein, Chip Kelly is one of the true innovators in college football. His Oregon offenses took college football by storm, and his teams ran roughshod through the old Pac-10 even while led by previously unheralded quarterbacks. He was a bad no-call away from winning a national title, and what could have been if Dennis Dixon doesn’t get hurt in Tucson.
Kelly has brought that same dynamism to college football before, and much like Saban, he will have a chance to learn from his failures at the NFL. And much like Saban and his influence on defense, Kelly’s hand prints are all over college offenses, from Scott Frost’s Central Florida offense to Oregon and everywhere in between.
Why can’t the master innovator bring that same energy back to the sport in Westwood?
Take Georgia on the other hand. In just two years, Kirby Smart has built a terrifying war-machine of a roster on top of what was a really solid foundation laid by Mark Richt. Georgia was already loaded with Georgia-born players such as Roquan Smith (who UCLA had committed until Jeff Ulbrich left), Nick Chubb, Jake Fromm, Mecole Hardman and others. It helps to be the flagship in such a talent-rich state.
And then Kirby Smart and staff went out and recruited the #1 class for 2018, including four of the state’s 5-star recruits and five of the six top ranked players from Georgia. One of those players, quarterback Justin Fields, is yet another 5-star and he enrolled early to compete with another 5-star quarterback in Fromm for the 2018 starting job. That has left a 2016 5-star quarterback, Jacob Eason, to decide to transfer from Georgia back closer to home in Washington.
That’s a lot of stars.
And it’s not just in Georgia where UGA is taking names. In their 2018 class, UGA has the top ranked recruit out of three states (North Carolina, Illinois and Tennessee), and it would be a 4th in Georgia if you felt strong enough about Fields over Trevor Lawrence. And if you look at the Dawgs’ roster, you won’t find many players from outside of the South. Kirby Smart has built a burgeoning juggernaut out of the talent that’s within arm’s reach of Athens.
Can you imagine a winning UCLA program under Chip Kelly scooping up much of the elite talent that comes out of even just Southern California? I can.
Talent has never been and never will be an issue at UCLA. There is too much in California and the West for UCLA to ever struggle, and when UCLA has struggled, it’s been due to a lack of coaching and not a lack of talent.
Lest we forget, Alabama won that game in the second half on the back of Najee Harris and Tua Tagovailoa, who are from the Bay Area and Hawaii respectively (their starting left tackle, Jonah Williams, is from Folsom near Sacramento as well). There’s no reason why UCLA should let players in their backyard go so far from home.
Now, much like Georgia and Alabama, UCLA and USC will go head-to-head for a lot of the elite players, and battles will be won and lost by both. But Chip Kelly will have more than he ever had available at Oregon in Westwood, and he won’t even have to leave the backyard if he doesn’t want to.
All of this doesn’t even take into account the state of the rest of the Pac-12, especially the South. USC is fresh off a Pac-12 title, but ask USC fans how confident they are in Clay Helton after getting pantsed by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. Then they see Chip Kelly come into town, and inevitably the doubt has to creep in.
Arizona State hired an ex-NFL coach who’s never been a head coach in college and last coached football (unsuccessfully) TEN YEARS AGO. Arizona is in a state of uncertainty after firing Rich Rodriguez, Colorado stagnated in 2017 under Mike MacIntyre after losing Jim Leavitt to Oregon, and Utah has yet to make the leap to win the division.
In the North, the challenges look stiffer. Stanford is as stable as ever, and Chris Petersen is building a juggernaut in Seattle. While I remain skeptical of hiring a head coach to save a recruiting class, Mario Cristobal has plenty of talent on hand at Oregon, and Cal should remain thorny under Justin Wilcox. The Pac-12 certainly is no cakewalk.
But it also just went 1-8 in bowl games, and it is very clearly a few steps behind the rest of the Power 5 as a conference. Why can’t Chip Kelly steam through like he did at Oregon, only this time with better talent in Westwood than in Eugene?
Laying a foundation isn’t a fast process. UCLA fans need to be patient and remember that in 2018. Coaching changes in college football are not quick fixes, and given just how much retooling the defense needs and how thin the offensive line is, growing pains are inevitable.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson should not be expected to start as a true freshman on September 1 against Cincinnati after 4 weeks of fall camp. Devon Modster is perfectly capable, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dorian take the Brett Hundley route and redshirt and be ready to roll in 2019. UCLA’s overhaul on defense from a 4-3 to 3-4 will require moving players around on the front 7 and teaching them entirely new techniques. It will take time.
And that’s okay.
In 2007, Nick Saban went 7-6 in year one and lost to Louisiana-Monroe. He then lost 6 games over the next 5 years combined. Kirby Smart went 8-5 last year in his first season with a fine roster left by Mark Richt and turned it into a playoff appearance in year two ahead of schedule. Dabo Swinney lost 12 games in his first two seasons as a full time head coach and has since lost 15 games in 7 seasons.
I’m not saying that Chip Kelly will win 5 titles in a decade like Nick Saban. I’d settle for one myself.
But the ceiling of the UCLA football program is higher than ever, and UCLA fans have good reason to dream bigger than ever.