EL PASO — Ah, for the glory days of September, for the No. 6 national ranking, for the victories over Alabama and Michigan that prompted UCLA quarterback Ryan McCann to declare, "I think we proved we were the No. 1 team in the nation."
The national championship game will be played five days from now, two time zones to the east. The unranked Bruins (6-5) play here today, in the Sun Bowl, against unranked Wisconsin (8-4).
With one more loss in the regular season, the Bruins would not have been eligible for a bowl game. With a loss today, the Bruins will finish the season at .500 and carry a three-game losing streak into next season.
For all the motivation for the Bruins to play well today--avenging a Rose Bowl loss to the Badgers, two seasons ago, sending the seniors out with a victory, setting the stage for a championship run next season, rallying behind embattled defensive coordinator Bob Field--nothing might be more important than ending the season with a taste of that championship feeling from September.
"We've got to play for respect," safety Marques Anderson said, an unsettling but necessary first step for a team with grand dreams in 2001.
"We had a mediocre year, just over .500. I think we're a better team than that."
How much better? Of their five losses, the Bruins will remind you, four were by eight points or fewer.
"Washington and Oregon State are playing in BCS games, and we lost by seven and six points to those teams," quarterback Cory Paus said. "A couple plays here and there and we would be in the Fiesta Bowl."
But, said McCann, "It's hard to say how good we are. The best teams pull those games out, so obviously we're not one of the best teams."
And, of the Bruins' six victories, five were by seven points or fewer. A couple of plays here and there, and the Bruins would be sitting home, marking time until spring practice.
"We've got something to prove," receiver Brian Poli-Dixon said. "We have to prove we are the team that had a shot at the national championship.
"We still are a great team. We want to show the nation."
In that sense, the Sun Bowl is the first game of next season. The Bruins hope to convince themselves, and those who feed the hype machines of college football, that they are worthy of national title consideration next season.
"This game definitely sets you up for next year, for the polls and the preseason rankings," Poli-Dixon said. "This will be the last opinion people have of us."
The Bruins believe an offense powered by Paus, Poli-Dixon and tailback DeShaun Foster can propel them toward the Rose Bowl next season, toward the magical goal of playing in the national championship game in their home stadium.
Today's nationally televised game offers a platform to convert skeptics--how can a 6-5 team with a leaky defense envision itself as champions next season?--to believers.
This season's Bruins gave up 347 points, the most in school history. If they can put the clamps on Wisconsin tailback Michael Bennett, they might convert a few skeptics.
"They came into our house [in the 1999 Rose Bowl] and ran the ball a lot," linebacker Robert Thomas said. "They think they're going to come in and run all over us. Our main goal is to stop the run."
Wisconsin has not lost in its last six games against Pac-10 teams, including two Rose Bowl victories over UCLA. If the Bruins can stop that streak, they might convert a few skeptics.
"It's a real big statement we have to make, not only that the Pac-10 is a national contender but that the UCLA Bruins are a national contender," Anderson said.
All the talk of next year is a bit unsettling to UCLA Coach Bob Toledo, given that six seniors will start their final game for the Bruins.
"I don't think it's fair to tell our seniors this is a game to jump-start us for next year," Toledo said.
No worries, said senior offensive lineman Brian Polak. He'll be fired up anyway.
"For some of us, it's our last game, and you want to go out on top," Polak said. "Some of us want revenge on Wisconsin. Some of us just want to win.
"I fit into each category."