Another Empty November For UCLA?

Another Empty November For UCLA?
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The calendar turns to November this week. In Westwood that marks the annual exclusion of UCLA football in terms of national relevance. The Bruins are 5-4, have lost back-to-back games to the toughest teams on the schedule, and are now fighting to stay alive for the Jimmy Kimmel Bowl in mid-December. The irony is that this is Chip Kelly’s most successful year to date at UCLA. But it has not lived up to what could have been and should have been. So, it looks like another empty November for UCLA.

What seemed like a season with potential and promise after a week two win over LSU has spiraled. Kelly is often dismissive of media questions when he does not like the premise. But that was never more evident than the post-game press conference Saturday after the 20-point loss at Utah. Stats were thrown out by Kelly that misrepresent that status of the team’s defense. Players gave some answers that raised more questions. And the fan base as represented on social media is predictably split as to whether Kelly should come back for the final season of his five-year contract. Accordingly, some perspective on particular items seems to be needed.

Item:

UCLA can win the remaining three games against Colorado, USC, and Cal. That would make them 8-4 and possibly get them an upgrade from the Jimmy Kimmel Bowl to the Las Vegas Bowl.

Reaction: Yes, but….sweeping all three is unlikely. The one thing UCLA has proven to be this season is wildly inconsistent. The defense has been poor most of the season. The offense has pendulum swings depending on Kelly’s schemes from one game to the next. He likes to say ‘you take what a defense gives you.’  He never proclaims to be able to impose the will of the UCLA offense on other teams. One thing that seems certain. After being eliminated from the conference race with losses to Oregon and Utah, the crowds at the remaining three games will be sparse.

Colorado is one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 and the game has been dumped on the Pac-12 Network at 6 pm. USC only drew about 40,000 at the Coliseum last week for homecoming (yes, we heard what the announced attendance was). And then Cal plays at the Rose Bowl…on Thanksgiving weekend, with who-knows-what still at stake for either team. Scenes like the season opener against Hawai’i are going to be revisited no matter how many tickets athletic director Martin Jarmond gives away. Eight and four is possible with 7-5 being more likely and with very few quality wins in that mix.

Item:

Isn’t a 7-5 record still far better than what Kelly has produced in the first three years? A bowl game, no matter how lower tier, should count for something.

Reaction: Let’s start with the Jimmy Kimmel Bowl. It is so new and on such a lower threshold that they have not even announced yet what the payouts are to the two teams. Jarmond is the master of the PR blitz. We are sure he would be on social media touting the photo ops at SoFi Stadium. But is that really where the expectations are now?

We have mentioned repeatedly since Spring camp that UCLA was returning one of the most veteran teams in the entire country. Next year is a rebuild. The Bruins will most likely lose at least 22 players who started at least one game this season. That number will rise when some players leave early for the NFL. THIS was the year. After three seasons of Kelly talking about youth, inexperience, moving players to different positions, THIS was the year. As one of my media colleagues said last week, if this was THE year, how can 8-4 be all there is? And that would require they even get to 8-4.

Item:

The team is more competitive than at any time in the Chip Kelly era.

Reaction: That is only minimally true and only if you never look beyond the surface. There was confetti and hugs all around after UCLA beat SEC blueblood LSU in week two. It turns out though, LSU isn’t very good. The Tigers are 2-3 in conference play, 4-4 overall and have already fired their coach. UCLA has beaten Arizona, which has not won a game in two seasons; Stanford which is last in the Pac- 12 North, Washington, which is fighting for the same level bowl as UCLA; and Hawai’i, in addition to LSU. The games against the good teams? Fresno State-lost; Utah-lost; Arizona State-lost; Oregon-lost. Not much of a resume when looking for something other than the Kimmel Bowl.

But there is more to it than that. There is Kelly’s being disingenuous when it comes to talking about his team’s strengths and weaknesses. It goes beyond coach speak. When the pass defense was getting lit up week after week on its way to being 117th in the country, Kelly insisted it was because the Bruins were stopping the run game so well, that teams had to throw more.

Yes, UCLA has been top 30 all year in run defense. That looks good if you do no further analysis. But Kelly is a smart man. He knows better than what he proclaims. Out of the nine teams UCLA has played, six rank 75th or worse in the country in rushing, out of 130 teams. That didn’t happen because UCLA stopped them. It happened because they aren’t good running teams, and pretty much everyone has stopped them. The key to beating UCLA is to throw first and run second, and a real analysis of the stats bears that out. There are no excuses for a defensive secondary that starts all upperclassmen to be this bad. Unless there is. See below.

Item:

Did a UCLA player unintentionally give us a clue into the defensive issues?

Reaction: After the loss to Utah Saturday, the media got some time with sixth-year senior linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath. He is truly one of the brightest young men in a room full of bright young UCLA men. He was asked if it was hard going up against such a physical team as Utah. His response was curious. “The first half we were trying to figure out what they were going to do,” he said. Asked by another reporter what Utah did to have success in the running game, Genmark Heath detailed some of the schemes the Utes ran. He added, “They didn’t do anything special. They did the same thing we’ve seen.” Utah ran for 290 yards. How can a defense go in so unprepared for what was clearly the strength of the opponent? Paging Jerry Azzinaro. Mr. Azzianro please pick up the blue courtesy phone.

In all seriousness, we would love to ask Azzinaro what happened. Or what happens any week. We would ask why when Oregon’s Anthony Brown has completed only nine passes of more than 25 yards all year, did Azzinaro see fit to keep his defensive backs so far off the receivers. He handed Brown the underneath and Brown made UCLA pay.

But despite being a public employee, at a public university, where coaches have media availability contract stipulations, Azzinaro has never been held to account for his four years of a porous defense. Thanks in large part to Jarmond, nearly every assistant coach was made available to the media this Spring or Fall for the first time in the Kelly era. Except for Azzinaro. The media has made several requests over the years. He has never been made available to account for his record. His pass defense has been ranked near the worst in the country every year he has been here. When asked to address that issue Saturday night, Kelly refused. The two are tight. As goes Kelly, so goes Azzinaro. Expect more of these results in the coming weeks.

Item:

Who would UCLA get if they did want to replace Chip Kelly?

Reaction: It is going to be a competitive market. Right at this moment, there are job openings at USC, Washington State, TCU, Texas Tech, and LSU with a few more to come in the next week or two possibly at places like Florida and Virginia Tech.

Unlike USC and LSU, UCLA needs to be less concerned about marquee names and get a proven coach. Next year is going to be strange in every sense of the word. Even with the massive roster turnover, UCLA will open the season 3-0 with a weak out of conference schedule, though we give props for putting an HBCU on the schedule. But after a fourth consecutive season that falls below expectations, and weak out of conference schedule, the Rose Bowl will be plenty empty early on. Don’t let something like that color who you potentially hire. Win enough football games and they will come.

Item:

Kelly’s contract buyout is an impediment.

Reaction: Nine million dollars is a lot of money for an athletic department that is about $40 million in the hole. But comparatively speaking, it isn’t that much. Kelly is the 12th highest-paid coach in the country based on his annual salary. That’s right. At 15-25, he is one of the top paid coaches His buyout, among the 30 highest-paid coaches in the country, is 29th. The buyout goes away in mid-January of 2022. But if a change is going to be made, the school cannot wait that long and expect a quality head coach to still be available with all of the job openings that are out there.

Whatever happens to Kelly, Azzinaro, or anyone else, is continuous chatter for the days and weeks to come. What is known now is that UCLA is entering yet another November being on no one’s national college football storyboard. They will be playing games in front of dwindling crowds.  November irrelevance is a tough sell to donors and season ticket holders. The Bruins are fighting for a low tier bowl game and there is no way to spin that to feel like progress.

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