Mike Stoops has been fired. If Rick Neuheisel doesn't win Thursday night, he could be next.
Removing a football coach midseason is a delicate bit of surgery. You only do it if you absolutely must, and even then timing is important. It helps if you can pull the trigger at the beginning of a bye week to allow time for the new head coach to get his bearings and the team to move past the emotional fallout. It's even better if your next opponent is a tomato can. That way the new guy can ring up a W in his first game and give the convincing impression of pages flipped, nights turning to day, tailspins pulled out of and the like.
When Arizona AD Greg Byrne sent coach Mike Stoops packing last week, he followed this playbook to the letter. The guillotine came down at the outset of the Wildcats' bye week, giving the new regime 10 days to prepare for its Thursday night home game against UCLA. And the Bruins are one of the few Pac-12 opponents pretty much every team in the conference thinks, for obvious reasons, it stands a decent chance of beating. Though it's probably not that fun taking the job of the guy who hired you, interim head coach Tim Kish, who served under Stoops as linebackers coach and then defensive coordinator, is set up pretty well to run his career winning percentage to 1.000.
What ultimately brought down the Stoops administration was an October 8 loss at Oregon State. Arizona became the only team the Beavers have defeated this year, which is bad enough. The Wildcats also pushed their losing streak against FBS opposition to an incredible 10 games, which for fans and university overseers moved the status quo beyond the point of defensibility. The losing streak included a lot of big-hitter opponents (Stanford twice, Oregon twice, a top-five Oklahoma State), but it also included losses to a collapsing USC team last November and ancient rival Arizona State. Against the top-line competition the Cats typically looked way out of their depth. They've gone over 11 months now without beating an FBS team, which might be forgivable in years one or two of a rebuilding project but not so much when the coach has been in charge for six-plus seasons. For Stoops, the statute of limitations on excuses had long passed.
The last FBS opponent Arizona defeated was, oh you're not going to believe this, UCLA. So you can understand why Byrne might see Thursday's game as an opportunity to bookend the streak and draw a clean line under his troubles. The Bruins, however, have improved (modestly, but still) since the Cats last saw them. They're 2-1 in the conference. Although neither of their two wins (against Oregon State and Washington State) was breathtaking in its grandeur, it's clear that UCLA isn't headed for the league basement. There's a squishy layer of teams (so far including Arizona) below them to cushion the fall.
The Bruins too are coming off their bye week, time that Coach Rick Neuheisel has been using to reinstall Kevin Price as his starting quarterback. Prince has been back atop the depth chart since Richard Brehaut broke his leg on October 8 against Wazzou. In that game Prince came out of the bullpen to catalyze a nice comeback win, but the issues with him have always been consistency and availability. He's had trouble stringing together quality games, and he's forever a snap away from reinjuring himself. With that in mind, the anticipation is building for true freshman Brett Hundley, now second-string QB. Hundley is a 6'4" dual threat who played his high-school ball in Chandler, Arizona, not 100 miles from Tuscon. If Prince throws a couple picks or gets hurt, crown-jewel recruit could make his debut.
Conveniently enough, Arizona's defense is rubbish. They're allowing almost seven yards a play and almost 38 points a game. That is so many yards and points! UCLA has a firmly established offensive identity: they're a body-punching ground team that chews up real estate in three-to-six yard increments. Prince will run lots of zone reads with Johnathan Franklin and now and again pitch to Jordon James on the fly sweep. Only occasionally, when Neuheisel's had his Four Loco, will the ball travel airborne far down the field. Against Wazzou he unclenched a little and let Prince take a couple long-distance shots to Nelson Rosario and Randall Carroll, but faced with a Wildcats D that's giving up over five yards a carry (so many!) Rick will resist his more flamboyant impulses.
UCLA shouldn't have troubling scoring, and Arizona might have even less. They run the Air Raid offense of one-time coordinator Sonny Dykes, which is an attack that does especially well two things - spreading the field and completing short passes - the Bruins' defense is especially bad at handling. Senior quarterback Nick Foles has been great and at times amazing. Despite a terrible offensive line and a running game scarcely worthy of the name, Foles has performed like the NFL upper-tier prospect he is. His receiver corps is a nice mix of chain-movers and deep targets. UCLA welcomes the return to action of cornerback Sheldon Price, who's been out a couple games with a knee injury, but unless they can conjure a pass rush for the first time all season, Foles will cut them apart.
Arizona Desert Swarm, SBN's Wildcats blog, avers that Thursday's contest will "come down to which defense sucks the least." Hard to argue with that, but I also think the outcome depends in large part on where the Cats are mentally. Changing coaches midseason can be a random-event generator: players might rally to the flag and find a new energy, or they might just check out. There's no telling which reaction Tim Kish has managed to elicit until we see the results on the field.
The Brus have not done well against Arizona recently. They haven't beaten the Wildcats since 2006 or won in Tuscon since Karl Dorrell's first year. If the trend holds and they fall tomorrow, you can go ahead and add UCLA to the list of programs that will be hiring a new head coach in the offseason. But I'm feeling OK about this one. It's just hard to persuade a 1-5 squad to keep churning forward after a coaching change. The risk of demoralization is great. Instilling organizational discipline on the fly is a tall order. The odds are against Kish having accomplished it yet, if he ever will, so I'm calling an oh-so-narrow Bruins victory. Fishmore Prediction: UCLA - 31, Arizona - 30.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.