The new regime in Westwood has the Bruins off to a roaring start. Now the challenge is to handle success.
Just two games into the Jim Mora, Jr. era at UCLA, and an unfamiliar, almost alien mood of excitement surrounds the Bruin football program. Fans who've spent the past 13 seasons watching UCLA play timid, ineffectual football under timid, ineffectual coaches are revising their expectations upward - cautiously, because we've all been here before and had our hopes disappointed, but upward nonetheless. The opening day victory over Rice was a good start that validated an early sense that Mora was moving things in the right direction. Last Saturday's exhilarating takedown of ranked Nebraska showed that Mora's plan is ahead of schedule and that his Bruins are ready to compete right away.
But compete for what, exactly? Well, a late-December bowl berth, at the minimum. At the moment UCLA appears to be no worse than the fourth best team in the Pac-12, which would put them on track for the Holiday or Alamo Bowl. For a program whose high-water mark in the current millennium was a 2005 visit to the Sun Bowl, a postseason trip to San Diego or San Antonio would mark a definitive step forward. But why stop there? The Bruins might be favored in all of their next eight games, and although three opponents in that stretch (Oregon State, Arizona State and Arizona) notched big victories last weekend and look to be more formidable than expected, it's not totally crazy to imagine UCLA carrying a 10-0 record into its November 17 confrontation with USC. From there, you're just an upset away from a spot in the Pac-12 title game and a puncher's chance at the BCS.
I'm not saying that scenario is likely. Odds are, the Bruins will stub their toe at least once between now and then. But the schedule is set up for a huge run over the next couple months. Of the four road games, only one is against a team getting poll votes (Arizona State) and three (Colorado, Cal and Wazzu) are against teams who've looked awful in the season's first two weeks. This is how fast expectations have shifted for UCLA. Before the season started, eight wins was considered a reasonable best-case scenario. Now anything below eight will be viewed as a disappointment.
Much of the credit for the Bruins' fast start has gone to redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and senior running back Johnathan Franklin. They deserve all the daps coming their way. Hundley, who ranks top 20 nationally in passer rating, plays with such calm and intelligence it's hard to believe he's experienced only two more games in college than you and I have. His passing touch still needs some work, but Noel Mazzone's offense, designed to stress a defense both vertically and horizontally, allows Hundley to get into an easy passing rhythm with quick, crisp tosses to tight ends and running backs. Already the youngster looks like best Bruins QB since Cade McNown. Assuming he stays healthy (forever a concern when it comes to UCLA and its quarterbacks), he's the kind of foundational talent a coach can build a program around.
Franklin, though, looks destined be the Bruins' signature player this year. He's been building toward this. The last couple seasons he's had to grind out yards behind poor offensive lines and without the benefit of a decent passing game to keep opponents from loading up the box. Now that he's got a little help, his takeover is underway. He's running with speed, leverage and power and becoming a weapon in the passing game as well. Don't dismiss his Heisman chances. Increasingly, Heisman voters are showing a preference for guys who post breakout campaigns after beginning the season off the radar. Such was the path taken by the last three Heisman winners: Mark Ingram in 2009, Cam Newton in 2010 and Robert Griffin III in 2011. (One problem, though, is that even if Franklin continues to dominate, West Coast Heisman voters are likely to split their votes among Franklin, De'Anthony Thomas and Matt Barkley. Still, even an invite to New York for the presentation would be an honor and a source of nice publicity for the UCLA program.)
What's most encouraging is how the team is getting production out of nearly every positional unit, not just the offensive skill guys. Start with the offensive line, which I predicted would struggle to begin the season based on the amount of preseason practice time guys missed (because of injuries and the San Bernardino heat) and the fact the starting five includes three freshmen and a guy who hadn't played a game in two years while off on a Mormon mission. My pessimism, I'm happy to report, was misplaced. The O-line has been great, both in opening holes for the running game and keeping pressure out of Hundley's face. The defensive line has also been a nice surprise. We knew there was talent up front, but it's been ages since the Bruins D-line was something other than horrible, and I don't think anyone expected them to blossom in the new 3-4 scheme as quickly as they have. Underclassmen Ellis McCarthy and Owamagbe Odighizuwa are stars in the making. Datone Jones, whose sack of Taylor Martinez in Nebraska's endzone knocked the life out of the Huskers, is finally playing up to his potential.
The list of unsung contributors goes deep. Shaq Evens and Devin Lucien are providing an outside-the-numbers receiving threat that UCLA hasn't had in years. Steven Manfro shook off a case of the drops against Rice to gash Nebraska with a long touchdown catch. On defense, Anthony Barr switched from running back to shore up the linebacker corps and already looks like a natural playmaker. OLB Jordan Zumwalt is bringing the lumber as well. The secondary is getting good play from true frosh Randall Goforth and Ishmael Adams alongside veterans Andrew Abbott and Aaron Hester. And we'd be remiss not to call out Jeff Locke, who's been an invaluable field-position weapon on both punts and kickoffs.
Best of all, this team just looks like it belongs. These are not the Gutty Little Bruins, a nickname I've always hated for its back-handed, dismissive connotations. (If the word little is used to describe your football team, you're probably not very good no matter how gutty you might fancy yourself.) This UCLA team is fast and big and straight-up beat Nebraska physically. The offense is rocking and the defense is taking well to the 3-4. The field-goal unit needs work, but it hasn't cost them yet.
Now the challenge becomes mental. Can the Bruins stay hungry and focused with the world telling them how awesome they are? If they're for real they'll pound Houston this Saturday night and roar into the conference schedule with momentum. It's a mark of Mora's excellent start that UCLA fans expect nothing less.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.