UCLA football is now in year 13 of its rebuilding process. Since winning the Pac-10 title in 1998, the Bruins have never finished higher than third in the conference, and they've finished that high only once. Progress, or the illusion of it, has come at a pace too leisurely for even the most patient of fans. Still, people inclined to cut the program some slack tend to cite two supposedly exculpatory factors: the barriers to successful recruiting presented by UCLA's high admissions standards, and the time needed to recover from the damage wrought by former coaches Bob Toledo and Karl Dorrell. As excuses go, these are pretty uncompelling, as a glance at the Bruins' Saturday opponent makes only too clear.
The Stanford Cardinal are a real-deal college football power. They're 3-0, ranked fourth in the coaches' poll and have won 11 in a row, the longest streak in the nation. That quarterback Andrew Luck is the best player in the country is beyond informed debate. He'll be the top pick in next year's NFL draft. Vegas has Stanford at 12-to-1 to win the BCS championship this season. Only five teams (Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU, Boise State and Wisconsin) have shorter odds.
Admissions standards? Stanford's are the toughest of any FBS school. That didn't stop Jim Harbaugh from stocking the depth chart with next-level talent. Crappy legacy coaches? The Toledo/Dorrell clown act had nothing on Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris, who in the five years after Ty Willingham's departure for Notre Dame piloted Stanford straight into the mountain. In 2006 the Cardinal went 1-11, a bottoming-out far worse than anything UCLA's had to recover from.
How did the Farm go from the abyss to the BCS in just four seasons? By making a brilliant, below-the-radar coaching hire, plucking Harbaugh from the University of San Diego. Harbaugh turned out to be not just an ace recruiter but a cultivator of raw talent and a skilled gameday strategist. On his watch the Cardinal became a ruthless, violent squad and Luck developed into a once-every-15-years QB prospect. Until UCLA finds its Harbaugh, the titanic struggle to scrape together seven wins and a down-market bowl bid will remain an annual tradition.
Harbaugh left Stanford in the offseason to take over the 49ers. His former offensive coordinator David Shaw is now the Cardinal head man. Though it's too early to tell whether Shaw can sustain this epic roll over the long term - the ghosts of Frank Solich and Ron Zook might like a word - for now the talent bequeathed to him by Harbaugh pretty much guarantees a successful season and a cakewalk W over a Bruins team that looks badly overmatched.
Last weekend, with a 27-19 win at Oregon State, UCLA kept its season from falling totally to pieces. The performance wasn't anything amazing - the Beavers, who are a mess, were in it until the final minutes - but Bruin fans will take their victories however they can. Quarterback Richard Brehaut played well, Derrick Coleman ran for 100 yards and the defense generated a couple turnovers. Sad as this sounds, it was probably the Bruins' best all-around game in about 11 months.
They'll need to improve by orders of magnitude just to keep Stanford from covering the 20½-point Vegas spread. This Cardinal team is much more than just Luck. The offensive line is terrific, featuring a pair of blue-chip pro prospects in guard David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin. Running back Stepfan Taylor is averaging almost 100 yards a game on 5.4 yards a carry. Tight ends Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz, who have combined for over 260 yards receiving and six touchdowns, will both play in the NFL someday. Though the schedule's been soft, the Stanford defense has allowed fewer than 10 points a game. They're well rested (coming off a bye week), they're at home and they're just better than UCLA on both sides of the ball.
This could be the game Luck starts to put up crazy, Heisman-baiting numbers. The Bruins' pass defense has been pure stank thanks to zero pressure from the defensive line, poor coverage skills on the part of the secondary and a coordinator who refuses either to blitz or to ask his defensive backs to press opposing receivers. To make matters worse, the Bruin D-backs are dinged up. Cornerback Sheldon Price, their best cover man, is out with a knee injury. Safeties Dalton Hilliard (shoulder) and Alex Mascarenas (concussion) are doubtful as well. Last year at the Rose Bowl (the stadium, not the early January game) Luck turned in his worst passing performance of the season, completing only 11 of 24 attempts, and Stanford still won by 35. The 11-for-24 part won't happen on Saturday, but the winning-by-35 very well might.
Which isn't to say that UCLA will get shut out again. The Stanford D has been great so far (against shaky competition), but it's now without top linebacker Shayne Skov, who's out for the season after busting up his knee against Arizona. Which means the run-heavy approach that Neuheisel used against Oregon State - Brehaut attempted only 11 passes all game - could well make another appearance, much to the annoyance of Bruin fans desperate for Rick to start winging the rock around a bit more. The Cardinal defense has so far racked up more than four sacks a game, but when they don't get to the QB they can be thrown on. The Brus will score some points. The problem is, "some points" won't be enough to keep pace with the Andrew Luck Heisman Audition Show.
If this one's to be at all close, the UCLA offense will have to be near-perfect and the special teams will need to tilt the playing field. That was the hidden factor in the Oregon State win: the Bruins' average starting field position was at their own 35, while the Beavers' was at their own 21. In Jeff Locke and Josh Smith UCLA has a kicker and return man who can make that sort of thing happen. They're two of the very small number of Bruins who might actually start for this Stanford team.
Look, UCLA's not going to win this game. Beating a top-five opponent on the road just isn't in their skill set. But the four Saturdays after this one are pretty manageable (Washington State, bye, at Arizona, Cal) so if they can come out of this beating in one piece physically and psychologically, they'll have a shot at stabilizing their season before a tough November determines whether Neuheisel returns for a fifth year. Prediction: Stanford - 45, UCLA - 17.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.