Oh how quickly things can change. Just a few weeks ago, UCLA was in dire straits. They were sitting at 1-5 with no foreseeable improvement on the horizon and faced record low attendance and fan confidence in the program. Chip Kelly was beginning to look like a bust hiring in the biggest way possible. With a tough conference schedule looming, it seemed like things were only bound to get worse. But things change quickly in the sports world, and to the surprise of just about everybody, UCLA has now rattled off three dominant victories in a row.
Even more shocking, UCLA is now in contention to win the Pac-12 South, something NO ONE would have thought possible a few weeks ago. But now comes the tough part: Can they get over the hump and actually win it?
Does UCLA Have a Legitimate Shot at the Pac-12 South?
UCLA had a horrendous start to the season, but luckily for them, non-conference records don’t count when it comes to winning your division. Say what you want about the Pac-12, but when it comes to in conference play, it’s pretty competitive. So here’s where it stands for UCLA right now. Utah leads the South with a 5-1 conference record (8-1 overall), followed by USC at 4-2 (5-4 overall), and UCLA at 4-2 as well (4-5 overall). That’s a pretty close race. And furthermore, UCLA has everything in front of them moving forward.
With just three games left before championship weekend, UCLA plays at Utah, at USC, and finishes the season off hosting the Cal Bears. Notice that their next two opponents are the two teams in front of them in the standings, so it works out pretty nicely. Win these two games, and UCLA is sure to win the Pac-12 South. Slip up, and they’re likely out. So when we’re asking whether UCLA can win the Pac-12 South, what we’re really asking is whether they can win at Utah and at USC.
First of all, let me say that this UCLA team seems to have improved over last year’s team in recent weeks, despite even more exodus of talent. They’ve already bested their total of three wins last year. They’ve looked fantastic in the last three weeks and what’s more impressive is that they’ve been able to string together consistent play back to back to back. For a team that didn’t know who it was and struggled mightily early in the year, they seem to have finally found their identity and are playing with cohesion, confidence, and momentum.
Considering how low this team fell early in the year, it’s a cool thing to see. Of course, all that optimism could go out the window depending on how this team finishes the season.
Look, I don’t think this team will regress in the next few weeks. But that’s not to say they will win those games, and if I had to bet, I’d say its highly unlikely that they beat both Utah and USC. I think they probably lose both, although there’s a decent chance they win one and lose one. Winning both is definitely possible considering their improved play and the volatile Pac-12, but again, I don’t think it will happen, simply because of the level of competition they are playing against.
The first College Football Playoff rankings were released earlier this week, and Utah is ranked 8th. That’s pretty good for a team from a conference that has historically contained the bottom-feeders of the Power 5, and it shows that Utah is good enough to have a legitimate chance at the College Football Playoff. Their schedule confirms this. Utah has one loss on the season, a 30-23 loss to USC, but they have blown by Wazzu, Oregon State, Arizona State, and Cal. All teams that have shown potential at other points in the season.
It’s Utah’s defense that has really been scary, giving up more than 20 points only twice in nine games. Let’s also not forget that it’s a team with a veteran quarterback and running back, while UCLA is still awfully young. Then you have USC, who the Bruins beat last year, but I also don’t think they win that one this year. Despite Clay Helton‘s perennial hot seat status, USC has looked awfully good at times this year.
Their new air raid offense has been on fire behind the true freshman Kedon Slovis, initially backing up JT Daniels to start the season before the latter got hurt for the season. They’re always tough out in the coliseum. They do have weaknesses; the defense has been inconsistent, and they can’t run the ball as well now that their first three ball carriers are dealing with injuries. Overall, they’ve still been the better team than UCLA.
UCLA has shown that they win games when they get out early and then let the running game carry them late. They’re not good when it’s a tight game, when they have to come back, or when they can’t rely on the running game. UCLA has a tremendous opportunity ahead to win the Pac-12 South, and while I think they will put up a fight, I don’t see them quite being ready to take on the Pac-12 heavyweights this year (although it’s certainly not impossible).
While the Pac-12 Championship is always a lofty goal, I think it’s more important right now to just look at how UCLA finishes the season overall. Even if they lose, how well do they play in the losses? Do they continue the progress they’ve shown in the last three weeks? When you start the season as UCLA did, and you have a coach on the hot seat, every week is crucial.
Like last year, UCLA has found their stride mid-year, but they need to prove that it’s not a fluke and that it’s sustainable in order to go into the offseason with optimism about this Chip Kelly-program. So, even if UCLA doesn’t win the Pac-12 South, keep an eye on how they look in this final tough stretch to wrap up the season.