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Suddenly, UCLA Is Really on Schedule

September 17, 2000|CHRIS DUFRESNE

They've gone from ruins to Bruins before our eyes and so many people deserve credit: Bob Toledo, Ryan McCann, DeShaun Foster, Freddie Mitchell, Brian Poli-Dixon.

But the person most responsible for allowing UCLA to catapult from an unranked team on Sept.2 to a national title contender on Sept. 16 actually retired two years ago.

In 1986, Jim Milhorn, the Bruins' then-associate athletic director, arranged a home-and-home series with Michigan. In 1988, he worked out a similar deal with Alabama.

And so it was stipulated that UCLA, in the year 2000, would host two perennial powers at the Rose Bowl.

Without this important bit of paper pushing, one of the more incredible months in UCLA history would not have been possible.

As it turns out, UCLA's dramatic 23-20 victory over No. 3 Michigan on Saturday was only the biggest victory at the school since the Sept. 2 victory over No. 3 Alabama.

Was this a dream?

"I think this proves we're No.1 in the nation," UCLA quarterback McCann said. "I don't know who else we can beat or what else we can do."

If Toledo would have had a sock, he surely would have stuffed it in McCann's mouth. Instead, the UCLA coach clutched his heart the way television's Fred Sanford used to do when he exhorted, "Elizabeth, this is the big one!"

Could you imagine, before Labor Day, anyone at UCLA forming his mouth to utter such a ridiculous statement as McCann's?

Yet, the words parted McCann's lip with assuredness and conviction.

And, you know what . . . ?

Only months removed from one of the worst seasons in UCLA history, a 4-7 debacle punctuated by a handicap parking scandal, injuries and the ignominy of a 55-7 loss at Oregon State, UCLA is back in the national title hunt.

The 3-0 Bruins, ranked No. 14 in last week's Associated Press poll, will be a top-10 team when today's poll is released.

Five, six, seven?

No one can say for sure, but this much is certain: UCLA's September jump in the AP will rank with Carl Lewis' greatest leaps.

Even Toledo could not deny the obvious.

"If we stay healthy, and continue to improve, maybe we can make another run at it," Toledo said.

The "it" Toledo speaks of is the national championship, which eluded UCLA two years ago in a crash-and-burn ending at Miami, a game that started a spiral toward the football abyss that became 1999.

Bruin players still embarrassed by last season's fall are suddenly confident enough to start detailing scenarios.

"We beat the SEC's best, and the Big Ten's best," senior guard Brian Polak said. "Now all we have to do is beat the Pac-10's best. If we do that, there should be no denying us a shot at the national title."

The talk would have seemed preposterous if it were not plausible.

Polak and teammates claim something happened from spring to summer.

Someone asked Polak how the Bruins could turn things around in such a short period of time?

"For us, it wasn't a short period," he said. "For us, it was a long period of time."

Polak said last season's meltdown, in a strange way, brought this year's team together.

"The guys had the mentality of 'Damn, we will not let this happen again,' " Polak said. " 'We will not be embarrassed like we were.' "

The Bruins, however, needed more than inner resolve to get back on the national radar screen.

They needed a roll-the-dice schedule that could provide the power boast needed to make an early season poll run.

It took some skill and it took a little luck.

In the brave new world of the bowl championship rankings, playing a tough nonconference schedule actually runs contrary to national-title plotting wisdom.

Using a cream puff strategy, Kansas State nearly advanced to the title game two years ago. Last year, Virginia Tech rode the same strategy to a Sugar Bowl appearance.

UCLA had no control over this year's schedule, but it also did not try to dump either Alabama or Michigan to lighten the load.

Texas, you'll recall, only this season replaced a potentially tough game at Hawaii with a home game against Louisiana Lafayete.

UCLA officials said future nonconference games may be dictated by BCS concerns but, as it turns out, without Alabama and Michigan, UCLA's poll climb to respectability would have been an arduous, season-long proposition.

Bruin players, to a man, say now they welcomed the challenge.

"I loved it, I loved these games," Poli-Dixon said of the Alabama-Michigan bookend. "Basically it was our shot to come back and shock the nation."

It was the ultimate in risk-reward. Two losses against national powers on national television might have wrecked a team's fragile psyche.

Instead, Polak sat at his locker and said it was one of the greatest games he has ever been involved in.

"Coach Toledo said to us before the game this will be one of those games shown on ESPN's Sports Classics," Polak said.

Polak said he spent the game thinking of all the ramifications.

"I've never been in a game that had so many intricacies in it," he said. "It was so multifaceted, just because of what it meant to the program. There was so much stuff in this game."

Defensive end Kenyon Coleman said the Bruins embraced the all-or-nothing opportunity. "This is a book we're about to write. We can write every chapter. We just completed chapter three. Now, we're going for the Pac-10 title."

Oh, that.

UCLA opens conference play Saturday at Oregon, and a loss there would be almost as deflating as Saturday's victory was uplifting.

Yes, there's a long, long way to go.

But Saturday, it was good to be a Bruin.

How good?

"You all saw it," receiver Mitchell said. "We beat the two No. 3 teams."

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