The out-of-conference slate has not been kind to Chip Kelly.
In three years as the UCLA Bruins head coach, Kelly has gone 0-6 in out of conference games. In that same time span, he has gone 10-15 in Pac-12 matchups.
Sure, this is a small sample size, and there are lots of potential explanations for it. The Bruins have overall not been a good football team under Kelly, regardless of who they are playing. The out-of-conference games are always the first games of the season, so it’s quite possible that Kelly just struggled early in the season before improving with game experience and getting to know his players. And it’s just as possible that the Bruins’ improvement last year was due to general progression over the span of three years as opposed to not having to play any out-of-conference games (due to the covid shortened season). Not to mention, the Bruins have had some tough out-of-conference opponents. They’ve had to play both Cincinnati and Oklahoma twice.
Having said all that, there have been some pretty embarrassing out-of-conference losses where the quality of play from UCLA simply does not match up to what they’ve shown against tougher Pac-12 competition. Perhaps the worst was UCLA’s home loss in 2019 to San Diego State. And after scoring just 14 points that season in each of their three out of conference games, UCLA would go on to score at least 31 points in 6 of their next 9 games. They beat USC in 2018 and put up 67 points in a win against Washington State in 2019. Clearly, for whatever reason, they are capable of playing better football than they have shown in their out-of-conference games.
I think that if you’re not an early CFP contender or a team looking to go undefeated, it can be easy to discount out of conference games. After all, they don’t count toward conference standings outside of tiebreakers. You can lose these games and still have a shot at a conference championship. Chip Kelly has always had some connection to and similarities with Bill Belichick, and Belichick often uses early-season games to play around with players and schemes before finding his usual rhythm during the second half of the season. Furthermore, as a college coach, you’re inherently less familiar with a team that you don’t see year in and year out, and that can make them harder to prepare for.
But none of this means that out-of-conference games don’t matter. Wins and losses always matter regardless of who they’re against, and UCLA’s slow starts in the Kelly era have both diminished enthusiasm for the program and forced UCLA to play catchup for the rest of the season.
Considering that Chip Kelly comes into this season with the most pressure and highest expectations he’s had since coming to Westwood, it will be crucial for him to come into the out-of-conference slate prepared with his team ready to play their best football. On paper, UCLA should win two of these three games relatively easily, but things rarely work out the way they appear on paper when Chip Kelly is involved.
Week 1: Vs Hawaii
UCLA opens the season by hosting the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at the Rose Bowl. Hawaii went 5-4 last year under first-year head coach Todd Graham. Although their run and gun offense is the type of attack that can tend to cause problems for teams that are unfamiliar with it, their pass game wasn’t as explosive last year as it has been in the past. I would expect them to be better than they were last year due to continuity, but UCLA, being the more veteran team, should come away with a win in this one if they’re on their game. And if Hawaii’s run D is as poor as it was last year, it should be an easy matchup for the run-heavy Bruins to exploit.
Week 2: Vs LSU
The good news is that UCLA plays the Tigers at the Rose Bowl (as opposed to Tiger Stadium, where they’re pretty much unbeatable). The bad news is that a good SEC team like LSU is going to be a challenge pretty much anywhere you play them. Sure, they’re coming off an off-year by their standards. Such is to be expected coming off a national championship, arguably the best QB season in CFB history, and fewer returning starters than any prior national champion. The loss of Dave Aranda at defensive coordinator hurt, and Bo Pellini’s defense was so atrocious that he was let go after just one season. Derek Stingley also wasn’t playing his best ball to start the season. LSU also played 3 different QBs throughout the season as starter Myles Brennan was lost for the season due to injury in week 3.
All that said, LSU still managed to squeak out a 5-5 record. That included a huge upset win against Florida that essentially knocked them out of the playoffs. And even after all that adversity, LSU was still able to bring in the 3rd best-recruiting class in the country. It’s hard to see them not being better this year than they were last year, and even last year’s team probably could have beat UCLA.
A win isn’t out of the picture for the Bruins, but it’s not likely. To me, this game will be more about whether UCLA can hold their own and stay competitive against a tough SEC opponent.
Week 3: Vs Fresno State
UCLA gets all three of their out of conference games at home, which certainly is to their benefit. They’ll wrap up their out-of-conference slate with a second matchup against a Mountain West team, this time being Fresno State. UCLA actually lost to Fresno State early in Chip Kelly’s Bruins tenure, a 38-14 win for Fresno at the Rose Bowl in week 3 of 2018. Of course, that ended up being a very good Fresno State team, going 12-2 under head coach Jeff Tedford and QB Marcus McMaryion, and even finishing the season ranked. Those two are now both gone, and last year saw Fresno finish 3-3 under first-year head coach Kalen DeBoer.
Fresno could deal UCLA some damage in the passing game, especially considering their loss of Osa Odighizuwa. But even so, this is still a matchup that UCLA should win on paper.
Ultimately, what we see from these early games should give us a pretty good idea of what to expect from the rest of the season, and maybe even from the rest of the Chip Kelly era. Coming into year 4, this team is expected to be competitive in the Pac-12. If this team is focused and plays sound football during their out-of-conference schedule, good things are likely on the horizon. If, on the other hand, we see more of what we’ve seen from them in the past, it may be a sign that Chip Kelly’s coaching days are behind him.