It is a turning-point season for the UCLA Bruins, a huge moment not only for this team but for the future of the program.
"I think it is," Coach Bob Toledo says.
It is a daunting task, maybe even imposing if the Bruins were to consider it in that context.
"There's some kind of hesitation," senior center Shawn Stuart says.
It is a surprise, even the administration has to admit.
"From the vantage point of the end of the 1996 season, I would not have predicted this, no," Athletic Director Pete Dalis says.
It is unfamiliar, adding to either the weight of the moment or the excitement.
"You've got that thing looming over your head and we've always, especially in the last few years, have been a team that's been more of an underdog and come back," Stuart says. "I think there's a little bit of a concern there."
No big deal. The 1998 season that begins Sept. 12 against Texas at the Rose Bowl only likely carries with it historic implications. That's all.
These Bruins are merely in charge of the present and the future as one, which might be seen as getting overly dramatic except that they realize as much.
A successful season makes them a good program worthy of national recognition, having gone from the 10-2 record in 1997--including a 10-game winning streak and Cotton Bowl victory to close--to an enviable recruiting class to another major bowl game.
A disappointing season--anything worse than third place in the conference, anything more than two or three losses--makes them a capable team, not an impressive program, a difference that goes beyond semantics.
"We've worked to gain some national recognition and respect and now it's in our grasp," Toledo says. "The key now is to take advantage of that opportunity. We're [ranked] seventh and we're picked to win [the conference], but that doesn't do you any good if you don't continue to earn the respect and take advantage of that opportunity.
"I don't know how good we'll be. I can't say that for sure right now because I don't know. But if we can have another big year, that means a lot for us in future years . . . We have to prove now that we are capable of being a top-10 team consistently and then we've got to back it up by having another good [recruiting] class."
Says Brendon Ayanbadejo, the senior linebacker who was there for the 5-6 showing in 1996 and now for the recovery: "The process has just started. We have to get it going, to instill it in the freshmen. Everyone else has that attitude. The process is ongoing, from the veterans down to the youngest members on the team.
"The tradition here now is to be tough, to take everything as a challenge, to overcome those challenges in life and on the football field. Before, I don't think that was the tradition.
"We want that pain. We want to go through that because we want to be the best. We know if we do that and do everything we can do, going through Coach Yox [Kevin Yoxall, the strength and conditioning coach] and all that stuff, we know we are we going to be better. We see that as a challenge, whereas before maybe they didn't want that. They shied away from it. They were scared. But we're not scared."
Here's how they stack up, by position:
If Cade McNown can withstand the constant scrutiny that will come with being a Heisman Trophy candidate, his value to the Bruins should increase even more, if that's possible. Most of the attention going to one player means others will be able to develop outside the spotlight that normally comes with a top-10 team.
Beyond the hype, and beyond the several school passing records he already owns, McNown is also one of the Bruins' emotional leaders, so the importance of his health and presence exceeds his left arm.
Just in case there aren't enough things being piled on his shoulders.
If the unthinkable happens, Drew Bennett is the backup.
Jermaine Lewis opened practice No. 1 on the depth chart at tailback in the race to replace Skip Hicks, given a slight edge over Keith Brown because Brown sat out part of spring practice because of food poisoning. But in the end, they both could be backing up highly touted freshman DeShaun Foster, maybe even by the first drive of the first game.
Fullback Craig Walendy will supply the senior stability, starting the second week if the infection that sidelined him in the early going of two-a-day workouts also knocks him out of the Texas game and puts junior Durell Price in the starting lineup. Walendy's blocking has turned him into an important but underrated contributor.
Danny Farmer moves from split end to flanker to replace Jim McElroy, only not McElroy's speed. A pair of freshmen, Freddie Mitchell and Cody Joyce, also figure to have significant roles, along with both split ends, Brad Melsby and Brian Poli-Dixon, in an offense that in the past has used as many as four receivers on a play.