The time for stories about youth and inexperience is over. There is no room for answers about learning new schemes. No more needing a magnifying glass to look for infinitesimal signs of improvement in a three-year run that has gone 10-21. Chip Kelly has the most experienced team, and the largest roster, he has ever had in his college coaching career. Next year the Bruins lose a good chunk of their starting line-up, so the time is in the immediate. Starting Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl against Hawai’i, UCLA football is on the clock.
The Bruins are currently an 18-point favorite over Todd Graham’s Rainbow Warriors. That may be a bit optimistic. While the Bruins must pull out this win, it is unlikely Kelly and offensive coordinator Justin Frye will need to throw the entire scheme into the mix to do it. Keeping something hidden for next week’s LSU game is advisable if possible. But yes, win they must.
Kelly is 0-6 in out of conference games in his UCLA tenure, having had only Pac-12 games in 2020. During that winless stretch, he did have to face Oklahoma and Cincinnati, two programs that have passed UCLA in terms of football prowess. But he also lost to San Diego State for the first time in program history. He insists all the games are treated with equal importance despite the media pointing to the emptiness in one category over another. “We want to win every game we play,” Kelly said Wednesday. “We’re not going to talk to our guys about hey, this is a conference game, so let’s approach this differently.”
UCLA is also 0-3 in season openers under Kelly, having lost at Colorado last year. He insists it puts no more pressure on Saturday’s game. “I think you’re trying to couch it and maybe write a narrative,” Kelly said to the media Wednesday. “But I don’t think anybody says, ‘Hey let’s win the opener and we don’t care about game two and game threes and out of conferences. Every game you play is extremely important. We’re going to put everything we have into this game.”
Like any coach, Kelly is not going to talk about his contract. He has two years left on his original deal, including this season. To this point he has made well north of $1 million per win he has delivered. His hefty $9 million dollar buyout does not shrink until mid-January of 2022, making any UCLA demanded departure before then financially perilous for an athletic department that is at least $40 million in the hole. The way to dismiss any of the contract talk of course is to win, not a few games, but many. Most Vegas bookmakers put the over/under for the UCLA season at seven-and-a-half wins. Get more wins than that, and the contract talk is a moot point. Kelly’s agent would probably be on the phone looking for an extension. Fall below that, and it’s anyone’s guess.
Part of the equation is going to be how the team finishes the season. Last season, the Bruins gave away late game leads against USC and Stanford. They lost both games and finished the season with a losing record. For all of the talk about how close the team was to a winning record, Kelly said earlier in Fall camp that it was about learning how to win. There is not a presumed starter for Saturday who has not started previously. Learning to win can no longer be “a thing.”
When asked Wednesday if all the prior obstacles had been removed to having a successful season, Kelly would only say, “Yeah, I’m really excited about playing Hawai’i.”
In has been an odd few weeks in the UCLA football world. The Pac-12 joined the Big Ten and the ACC in a voting block and scheduling alliance. Too many inside UCLA were quick to dismiss potential changes as something that likely would not come until 2027 or later. The clear answer is schedule changes could come as early as next season.
Starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson missed 10 days of camp in what was a completely unnecessary shroud of mystery. While most programs in the country have some sort of statement when a player is gone, UCLA has word; “Unavailable.”
And then they put out, in digital media, a promotional poster for the season. Someone probably should have proofed it before hitting the “send” button on an official social media site. The dates for the USC and Cal games are in fact not TBD as the poster says. We have confirmed that with both schools.
The poster also puts super senior offensive lineman Paul Grattan front and center. He is a critical element for any of the offensive success this season and the school is keeping him away from the media. Grattan faces a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from a bar fight when he was attending Villanova in February 2020. The media has been aware of the incident for some time, and that he is in good standing at UCLA as the school monitors the proceedings. The media is also aware that were we to talk to Grattan as we do other players, he cannot comment on the matter as it is an ongoing legal matter. Thus, we would move on to talk about the offense and the line. Instead, he has been put behind the shroud. Except on the poster with the errors.
And then there is the matter of the LSU game in two weeks. Ticket sales are lower than what one might expect for two well known programs facing each for the first time in their respective histories. As typically happens in early non-conference games, with school not being in session, UCLA is struggling to fill the student section. It has resorted to ticket giveaways for UCLA students and high school students. Meanwhile, it is expected that LSU will have sold approximately 20,000 tickets to the game. That number comes from LSU because UCLA would not give an estimate when asked by the LA Times.
LSU this week also instituted a Covid vaccination policy for attending its home games. It is more stringent than what UCLA has for its home games. The irony is that while LSU sits in a heavily infected part of Louisiana, its policy will not go into effect until the week after the UCLA game. Meanwhile, those 20,000 fans are making their plans for Pasadena for Labor Day weekend. UCLA’s stance has been it is following LA County guidelines, while the county told us it wants help from its partners, UCLA and the Rose Bowl.
With the plethora of storylines, the most welcome news could be that there is college football Saturday, and for a time, that washes away anything else. That is if UCLA lives up to its mandate. The Bruins are on the clock.