LOS ANGELES—The differences between this year’s UCLA football team and last year’s are plentiful, but none is more telling than their appearance in the Pac-12 championship game.
Last year, the Bruins represented the Pac-12 South Division based on a technicality. This year, UCLA won the division based on technical superiority.
Yes, UCLA is back in the conference title game and the Bruins (9-3) will meet Stanford (10-2) Friday night in Palo Alto. Unlike last year when UCLA fell, 49-31, at Oregon, however, the Bruins feel like they belong.
“Last year didn’t feel right,” safety Tevin McDonald said. “We were happy to be in the game but we couldn’t really go into the game confident with our chest out and chin up. We earned it this year.”
There is no doubt about that. The Bruins had the best record in the South Division and defeated division favorite USC along the way. Last year UCLA stumbled into the title game with a 6-6 record a week after getting thrashed, 50-0, but USC.
Not only that, but coach Rick Neuheisel had already been served his walking papers by the time he led the Bruins into that game at Autzen Stadium. The school allowed Neuheisel to remain on and coach that game, but he was gone as soon as it ended.
USC finished two games ahead of the Bruins, but could not go to the title game because the Trojans were serving a post-season ban so UCLA went to Oregon and played a game that was closer than expected but many felt was a disappointment because it didn’t match the best teams from each division.
This year, UCLA survived a tough second half schedule, posting victories over Utah, Arizona State, Arizona and USC to clinch the division title and that gives the team confidence as they prepare for to play for a spot in the Rose Bowl.
“I feel like we’ve won enough games to be in it this year,” linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said. “We beat SC, we won the games necessary to come in and deserve the title. We’re very excited and we feel like we belong in this game. “
Clearly, the results on the field say so. There will be no asterisk attached to this UCLA appearance. The Bruins placed three players on the All Pac-12 first team after having none last year. They had four more on the second team after having only one last season.
And this year, UCLA got in the championship game without having to slip in the back door. Last year, it took Colorado pulling an unlikely upset against Utah in the final week of the regular season to give UCLA second place in the conference and the spot in the game against Oregon.
The Pac-12 allowed UCLA to call themselves South Division champions, but deep down, they knew they really weren’t.
“Last year we were hoping for other teams to lose, hoping for other teams to win, hoping for the sun to rise and set at a certain time,” tight end Joseph Fauria said. “This year there is no doubt.”
It may have been just as unexpected, though. USC began the season as the No. 1 team in the nation and UCLA was picked to finish third in the division. But infused by a new attitude brought in by first-year coach Jim Mora, the Bruins made everything about this season feel different and that includes their appearance in the title game.
“Last year, we all knew that USC couldn’t play and how it was going to work out and we got in, but it didn’t feel right,” McDonald said. “This year, all 12 teams in the Pac-12 were able to get in and we did it. We were not the ones expected to get in but we did it through the front door, so that feels good.”