Having been relegated to little more than an afterthought in the nation's second most populous city, the UCLA Bruins are hoping yet another change in leadership will get them headed in the right direction.
In its history, UCLA is credited with having won 17 conference championships and one national title, but the former was last accomplished in 1998, and the latter way back in 1954. So to say the Bruin faithful are chomping at the bit to see a consistent winner trot out on the field week in and week out, is an understatement.
Since Bob Toledo led UCLA to consecutive Pac-10 Conference crowns in 1997-98, the Bruins have posted just five winning seasons. Despite winning a big game here and there, both Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel failed to deliver on their promise to establish UCLA as a dominant team in both the Pac-10 (now Pac-12), as well as on the national stage, so the administration made the move to bring in Jim Mora, Jr. to hopefully get the program over the hump.
A former head coach with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks, Mora is a no-nonsense guy who takes his job, and the responsibility laid before him, very seriously.
At his introductory press conference back in December, the 50-year-old Los Angeles native spoke about the task ahead, "Our objective here is simple. And that is to make Bruin fans proud of their football team. It has been a tough decade for UCLA football. This is a program that has always represented academic and athletic excellence. And I look forward to the challenge of returning this football team to prominence."
UCLA claimed the Pac-12 South Division title last year, but went a disappointing 6-8 overall, which included losses in both the Pac-12 Championship Game (49-31 vs. Oregon), as well as the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (20-14 vs. Illinois). In fact, the only reason the Bruins played in the conference title tilt was because bitter rival USC was serving a postseason ban and was not allowed to participate.
As if facing the teams dotting the schedule year to year isn't tough enough, battling the Trojans for local headlines and more importantly, regional respect from a recruiting standpoint, is UCLA's toughest challenge. With the two schools separated by only 12 miles, the rivalry between them is one of the more intense in the country. USC, which is 46-28-7 all-time versus UCLA, has won 12 of the last 13 meetings, including a 50-0 shellacking of the Bruins last season, although both the 2004 and 2005 wins were later vacated due to NCAA sanctions. Prior to that though, UCLA had won eight straight (1991-98), which is the longest winning streak in a series that dates back to 1929.
Based solely on what the university itself has to offer, recruiting at UCLA isn't really a problem. But from a football perspective, Mora and his staff certainly have their work cut out for them. Right now, many of the west coast's top players are looking elsewhere to continue their playing days, but the Bruins appear to at least have the upper hand with respect to most other schools in the Pac-12 -- that is of course, except for their cross-town rivals. Stringing together a couple of winning seasons and showing they are serious about challenging for conference supremacy will certainly help in that regard.
Mora's first recruiting class included the signing of 25 high school seniors and one juco transfer. A total of 15 kids are from California, and the class received a top-20 ranking by most reputable sources. Three of the newcomers were ranked in the top-100 nationally, and one was a high school All-American.
The success of this year's team could very well hinge on the play of redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley. A gifted athlete who threw for more than 2,300 yards, 20 TDs and only two INTs as a high school senior, Hundley is hoping to wrestle the starting job away from incumbent Kevin Prince (.562 completion percentage, 1,823 yards, 12 TDs, eight INTs in 2011). At 6-4, 225 pounds, Hundley has the body and tools to develop into a top-flight signal- caller, but his coronation isn't likely to happen overnight.
Boasting several guys with starting experience on both sides of the ball, UCLA should be in decent shape in terms of experience, but where the club has shown regression of late is in overall talent. The hope is that with a new system in place and the influx of some versatile and highly-skilled youngsters, the Bruins will show significant improvement as the season wears on.
That remains to be seen, but Mora is confident that it won't be for a lack of effort, "We are going to fill this team with student-athletes who will be winners both on the field and in the classroom. We will look for great players, for great competitors, who love to play football, who are mentally and physically tough, we are going to put them with coaches that love to coach, that love to compete, that want to mentor our young people. And we're going to go try and win a bunch of football games."