The UCLA Bruins have one week to improve their lot in the post season. Saturday is the regular season finale against Cal at the Rose Bowl. After their win over crosstown rival USC, it is easy to forget that there is still a lot on the line with regards to UCLA’s status.
The Bruins are 7-4 overall. They have assured themselves a winning record for the first time in the Chip Kelly era. Now, with the game against Cal ahead, they are playing for which bowl game they will get invited to. As much as Kelly likes to talk about having great Wednesday’s or Thursday’s or any other day, that is what the outcome of Saturday’s game means. Period. Some of this will also be determined by other Pac- 12 games this weekend and the conference championship the following weekend. That will be Utah against Oregon, Oregon State, or Washington State.
Then the order of bowl selections comes into play. The conference champion will be in the Rose Bowl. The loser of the conference championship game will likely be in the Alamo Bowl. After that it becomes a little harder to predict this far out. If UCLA can get to 8-4, it will be tied for second in the Pac-12 South with Arizona State. The Las Vegas Bowl, which picks next, would choose between those two and the game would be against a Big Ten opponent. The Sun Devils do own the head-to-head tiebreak by virtue of beating UCLA earlier in the season.
The other bowl in play is the Holiday Bowl in San Diego which picks a little further down the line. That game would be against an ACC opponent. It is conceivable UCLA drops further down the pecking order and winds up in El Paso for the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl. These are different setups for the bowls than they used to have. But that is what happens when you take several years “off” from bowl games. You miss out on the changes.
The Victory Bell has been returned to UCLA. It is scheduled to be repainted Tuesday. Chip Kelly, who frequently says, “We are in a submarine,” had no idea as to its status. “Do we have the bell? I have no idea where the bell is,” he said Monday. Will the players get to enjoy the fruits of their spoils and see it painted back to Bruin Blue? “I don’t know. When does it get painted?” He was asking the media who was asking him the questions. “We have work to do. We have Cal, so our focus is 100% on that.”
While Kelly likes to claim singular focus, his players are typical college athletes. They were aware of the bell’s current location. Just like many were aware that the UCLA men’s basketball team plays Gonzaga tonight, and many have posted that they will be watching. Kelly, when asked, was unaware of the game, including the day, time, location of the game.
We are closing in on the end of year four in Kelly’s five-year contract. His $9 million buyout clause gets erased in mid-January, 2022. That makes year five a non-guaranteed year, rendering him a lame duck coach and essentially mitigating his ability to recruit. He spent much of the season on the hot seat. Now at 7-4 with the win over USC, it is widely anticipated he will return next year. But to do so, he needs a contract extension with new buyout clauses in order to be able to recruit going forward. The buyout clauses equal job security in college sports. UCLA’s current 2022 class is lacking. UCLA has about 30 spots available in the class but has only a dozen commits. With no job security for the head coach, recruiting becomes an impossible task.
So then where is Kelly’s extension? If the UCLA administration was taking a wait-and-see approach, did the USC game get him over the hump? Kelly was asked Monday if his agent was working on a new deal. “My agent handles everything, so I don’t worry about it. My day to day is just getting ready for Cal.” He was asked if he wanted to return. “Yeah, I love coaching here,” he said.
It lacks credibility to say he has no idea what the status of his future at the school is. Sure he has an agent to work out the details, but to not know if an extension is being worked on is impossible to believe.
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond is generally one of the most positive thinking people you will see on campus. It would be reasonable to assume he was excited by the win and is ready to give Kelly more time at the helm. But before we make such assumptions, it is important to know Jarmond’s past. He was in his third year as athletic director at Boston College when he fired football coach Steve Addazio. The coach had just finished his seventh year in Chestnut Hill. He was 20-18 during Jarmond’s three-year AD tenure, with three bowl game appearances. Kelly is 17-25 and making his first bowl appearance at UCLA.
This year’s class of departing seniors will actually get to play in front of crowd for their final home game. Last year’s Covid protocols had all the games, including Senior Day, in empty stadiums. Sixth year seniors like Brittain Brown, Paul Grattan, Ethan Fernea, Obi Eboh, Jordan Genmark Heath, and Qwuantrezz Knight are nearing the end of their eligibility. Their names will be announced prior to game as the fans bid farewell to them.
Others are not yet clear. Because of the NCAA ruling that the 2020 Covid season does not count against anyone’s eligibility, other seniors, even fifth year seniors, could choose to stay another year. Some undoubtedly will return. Others will choose to move on. There is a process by which the coaching and administrative staffs are meeting with players this week.
Someone they had not talked to as of midday Monday was quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. He was asked point blank Monday if the Cal game was going to be his last home game for UCLA. “Cannot say for sure,” he said with a wry grin. He chuckled when we tried to go in another direction to get an answer and asked if he was going to be announced Saturday night with the other departing seniors. “That I don’t know. I actually have to ask Coach Kelly and Coach Gundy, (quarterback coach Ryan Gunderson), about it. I know some of the guys got talked to today about it. But I have not though. I am pretty sure that conversation will be had soon,” he added.
He did make a reference to, “Going out and living it up like it is our last one, even if it is not.” With regards to a previous question about the Cal game and the postseason, he did comment about, “Going out on a high note.”
He said his decision will be based on talks with his family, his coaches and what he hears from NFL scouts. The deadline to commit to the NFL is March 1st. Most schools prefer their players to decide sooner so that they can manage scholarship numbers and signing day.
Ethan Fernea will be saying goodbye Saturday night. The sixth-year senior has had the most improbable of journeys in his time at UCLA. Coming from Dripping Springs, Texas he was a walk-on at UCLA through his first three seasons. Like other walk-ons, he took part time jobs to help pay the out-of-state tuition at UCLA.
He was given the #36 jersey to wear in honor of the late Nick Pasquale, a UCLA walk-on himself. Fernea spent most of his time on special teams just as a way to get on the field. He has come back from a broken leg, worked his way into a scholarship and playing time on special teams, as a receiver, and a part time running back. This season he broke his wrist in the Stanford game and had surgery, yet missed only one game.
All of that got us to last Saturday when he scored UCLA’s final touchdown in a blowout win over USC. He has been playing with a club on the right hand and he feared that would limit his carries. He said now that all of it is coming to an end, and he can think about the last home game Saturday, he has perspective. “I try to smile about the journey and not be sad that it’s over,” he said. “I’ll definitely be emotional after the game. It’s been a helluva ride and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
And that touchdown last week against USC? He acknowledged that he easily could have gone down shy of the end zone so that the team could go to victory formation since it was already a blowout. But, “No chance. Not against SC. If it was anyone else, maybe. But I don’t think so, not against SC,” he concluded.