A month ago, it seemed inconceivable that the UCLA football team could be in contention for a bowl game this season.
Yet, with three games to play, the Bruins (4-5, 4-2 Pac-12) are not only aiming for bowl eligibility, but the Pac-12 South division title.
On Oct. 5, UCLA walked off its home field at Rose Bowl Stadium with an embarrassing 48-31 loss to Oregon State – the annual doormat of the North division. The loss dropped the Bruins to 1-5 overall, with the only victory coming in miraculous fashion. After trailing by 32 points at Washington State on Sept. 21, they scored 50 points in the final 19 minutes to win 67-63.
A year a half into Chip Kelly’s tenure as head coach, the Bruins were a disaster, at 4-14. Kelly seemed more likely to get fired than ever lead UCLA to a bowl game.
Since that loss to Oregon State, however, the Bruins won three a row and none of the wins have been a fluke.
In fact, all three have been dominant. The Bruins thumped Stanford, 34-16, on the road. They, they rolled past Arizona State, 42-32, in a game they led 42-10 in the fourth quarter before ASU tacked on some meaningless points. Two weeks ago, the Bruins won their third in a row, 31-14, against Colorado.
Suddenly UCLA is one of the hottest teams in the conference.
“As a group, those guys collectively are playing with great effort,” Kelly said after UCLA win against CU. “Usually the team that plays the hardest and is the most physical has an opportunity to win in this league, and I think our players have adopted that.”
After a bye last week, UCLA returns to the field on Saturday against a team that plays harder and more physical than just about anyone in the Pac-12: No. 8 Utah (8-1, 5-1; No. 7 in College Football Playoff rankings).
The Utes, who have won five in a row, are in the driver’s seat for a second consecutive South title, but UCLA is very much alive for the division title. The game in Salt Lake City, slated for a 6 p.m. kickoff (TV: Fox) could be one of the most entertaining and pivotal matchups of the season in the South.
UCLA has rushed for at least 200 yards in five straight games for the first time since 1978, but the Bruins will face a tough test with Utah. The Utes lead the country in rushing defense, allowing 56.0 yards per game.
Even if the Bruins fall to Utah, they’ve got winnable games against rival USC (6-4, 5-2) and California (5-4, 2-4) in the final two weeks.
UCLA is trying to become the first team in Pac-12 history to start 1-5 and reach a bowl game. Nationally, only four teams have it in the past decade: Rice (2012), North Carolina (2013) and Missouri (2017) all recovered from 1-5 starts, while Miami of Ohio (2016) went to a bowl after an 0-6 start.
In recent years, the matchup between Stanford and Washington State has typically played a role in deciding the North division title.
This year, both teams are simply trying to stay afloat in their quest for bowl games.
Stanford (4-5, 3-4) visits Washington State (4-5, 1-5) on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in Pullman, Wash. The winner will take one more step towards the six wins needed for bowl eligibility. The loser will be on the brink of elimination.
In the previous three years, these teams ranked among the three in the conference for Pac-12 wins, with the Cougars going 20-7 and Cardinal going 19-8. Only Washington (22-5) had been better).
Oregon (8-1, 6-0), now No.6 in the CFP standings) will try to win its ninth in a row when Arizona (4-5, 2-4) visits Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday. Arizona has the longest current losing streak in the conference, at four games. … The Pac-12 has four bowl eligible teams: Oregon, Utah, USC and Washington (6-4, 3-4). Two more could join the list this week, as Arizona State (5-4, 2-4) visits Oregon State (4-5, 3-3), while Cal (5-4, 2-4) hosts USC. … The Pac-12 and Big 12 are the only conferences in the country with every team still in the hunt for bowl eligibility.