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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Don't expect much from UCLA

September 01, 2008|Chris Dufresne

It's an old ploy in sports writing to set your local teams' expectations too high or too low in order to sidestep the blandness of middle ground.

Who wants to write about tuna on white bread?

Last year we miss-clubbed a bit by suggesting UCLA football had the chance to be 11-0 when it faced USC on Dec. 1 at the Coliseum.

Did we completely believe it?

No.

Did it make a cover story for the special section?

Yes.

Was it false advertising?

No.

Last year should have been the signature year of Karl Dorrell's five-year reign. He had 20 returning starters and a left-handed quarterback who was as highly touted as anyone coming out of high school.

Most of the seemingly tough games were at home while UCLA started the season at No. 14 in the Associated Press poll -- what better time to put the program's cleats to the fire?

The year before, Ohio State and Michigan were No. 1 and No. 2 and undefeated when they met in an epic November battle in Columbus, Ohio.

Why not jack up the stakes?

Why not UCLA and USC?

"It would be exactly like Ohio State-Michigan," UCLA cornerback Rodney Van excitedly said then about the prospect.

UCLA ended up 6-7.

Sorry, wrong number.

The dream died a dusty death near the flats of the Great Salt Lake when UCLA went to Utah in September and lost, 44-6. Injuries mounted along with defeats, Dorrell lost his job and UCLA lost its bowl game.

A different era starts tonight when UCLA, led by first-year Coach Rick Neuheisel, takes the Rose Bowl field against 16 tons of Tennessee, a school from a conference that can crush a Pacific 10 Conference school with its bare hands.

The expectations couldn't be more flip-flopped.

The "eight" in the famous UCLA eight-clap cheer could total the number of Bruins losses in 2008.

That's right: 4-8.

This may be the most ragtag outfit UCLA has ever trotted out to an opening-night national audience.

How sad does it look?

If Red Sanders was still the coach, he might change his name to "Blue."

Neuheisel sets sail against a Tennessee team that won the Southeastern Conference's East Division and clobbered Georgia, which finished No. 2 in the AP poll.

UCLA breaks huddle with a junior college quarterback, Kevin Craft, who seems to have finally mastered the art of handling the center snap.

It begins with a 225-pounder starting at middle linebacker and an offensive line that was pieced together with help from the Salvation Army. There are guys playing in the line who used to be tight ends and guys playing the line who used to play defensive line.

So where, brave Bruins souls, are the victories on the schedule?

With help from a football forensic scientist, we think we've found all four of them:

* Sept. 20, Arizona. Not that this one is going to be easy, because the Wildcats have a gun-slinger at quarterback in Willie Tuitama. But at least it's a UCLA home game.

* Sept. 27, Fresno State. The pick would not have been UCLA had the game been played Aug. 30, as originally intended. Now, though, Fresno State will have played Rutgers, Wisconsin and Toledo before arriving at the Rose Bowl.

By then, Fresno State might be the beat-up Bulldogs.

* Oct. 4, Washington State. This is a pencil-it-in Pac-10 win. First off, the game is not in Pullman, Wash., and the Cougars are in a major rebuilding mode of their own.

* Nov. 15, at Washington. Neuheisel returns to the place where his career unraveled, and he will no doubt have his team emotionally charged against a team that might be ravaged itself after playing one of the nation's toughest schedules.

Are there swing games that could get UCLA to 6-6?

Sure, why not?

At home against Stanford on Oct. 18 seemed a decent win chance but that was before Stanford looked like Ron Dayne-led Wisconsin on Thursday when it out-slugged Oregon State in the conference opener.

And who's to say UCLA can't beat Oregon State at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 8?

The bad thing about high expectations is that the only way to go from there is down.

Dorrell last year didn't have much margin for error, and mediocrity brought a pink slip.

The good thing about low expectations is that there's no way to go but up.

The safest year a coach enjoys is the first year of a five-year contract, especially on a team that lost 25 seniors.

Neuheisel has a grace period that extends to 2010, which gives him two seasons to rearrange the furniture.

Funny thing: when the bar's set so low, five wins seem like over achievement, six wins get you a better parking spot and seven wins, well, that would exceed all expectations.

There we go with that word again.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Play it forward

Five things to watch this week in college football:

1 Year 3 of the Chuck Long era meets Year 4 of the Charlie Weis era when San Diego State travels to South Bend to play Notre Dame. How is it going so far? San Diego State, 4-8 last year, opened 2008 with a loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Notre Dame is coming off a 3-9 year but the good news Saturday is one team has to win.

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