The precariousness of UCLA's football season has never been more apparent than it is as the Bruins head to Tucson for a Thursday night game at Arizona.
Win the game and the Bruins will be tied for first place in the Pac-12 South; lose it and coach Rick Neuheisel might want to think about packing up his office.
That's kind of the strange predicament UCLA is in at the halfway point in the season, entering the second half of the season with a .500 record and facing the possibility that the next win or loss could very well have season-tipping implications.
The Bruins (3-3, 2-1 in Pac-12) sit a half game behind division leaders Arizona State and USC in the standings and a win Thursday will keep the Bruins in the thick of the conference title race. But UCLA is facing an Arizona team that, on paper, is a shambles and a loss to a team that just fired its coach would almost certainly be construed as an unforgivable offense.
“This game is a really big deal to the outcome of our season,” linebacker Sean Westgate said. “We win and we’re still in that race. We have a very, very good shot of continuing on the rest of the season and being in a position where we can take a shot at getting in that Pac-12 championship game. Without this game, I don’t think that’s a possibility. Then we’re just playing for a bowl game.”
Playing for a bowl game means playing for Neuheisel’s job. He admittedly entered the season on the hot seat and the underlying theme of this season has been if Neuheisel could make enough of an improvement to keep his job. The minimum requirement figures to be leading the Bruins to a bowl game.
But halfway through the season the Bruins find themselves in position to play for much more than bowl eligibility.
“We’re excited about what lies ahead for us if we can continue to improve and continue to become the program we want to be,” Neuheisel said. “If we can get ourselves a win this week, we’ll find ourselves in good position heading into the meat of the schedule with respect to the conference race and that’s exciting because that’s what everybody sets out to be a part of.”
A loss Thursday would devastate those hopes. As of now, the Bruins control their own destiny. If they win the rest of their games, they will be Pac-12 South champions. But a loss Thursday would bring in many other scenarios and would prove to all the naysayers that the Bruins are only in the race at this point because of a favorable schedule.
“It’s hard watching other games and you see them talking about Arizona State and Stanford and Oregon and you’re not in the conversation,” receiver Taylor Embree said. “You want to prove people wrong. You want to prove that you deserve to be mentioned and that you’re in that race with everyone else.”
National television on a Thursday night, of course, is the perfect place to prove such a point. UCLA’s game at Arizona on ESPN is one of only two FBS games on Thursday so the Bruins have a golden opportunity to make a statement about the state of their program.
“You like to put on your best when people are watching,” Neuheisel said. “And it’s one of those games in that timeslot where it’s the only game in town so people are turning on and channel surfing, we want to make sure they say ‘Hey, look at the Bruins. They’ve improved.’ And this is our opportunity to get that message across.”
Of course, that works the opposite way, too. The Bruins found that out the hard way last year when they were embarrassed twice in Thursday night games, losing at Oregon, 60-13, and at Washington, 24-7. It’s no surprise that after that kind of exposure, Neuheisel had the lowest-ranked recruiting class of his tenure.
An embarrassing loss to a 1-5 team on national television this week could further damage the image of UCLA football and for a coach on the hot seat that would spell bad news.
But to the team, that side story is irrelevant. The Bruins are focused only on the fact that they are contending for a Pac1-2 title and that has infused the program with a shot of energy. This is only the second time under Neuheisel that the Bruins have had a winning record in conference play at any point in the season. The first came when they defeated Oregon State earlier this year to go 1-0.
“There is definitely a different vibe,” quarterback Kevin Prince said. “There is a little more excitement around each practice. We’re excited to be up around the top of the South division of this conference. We have a chance to be tied for first if we can win this game. So there’s definitely excitement surrounding the program.”
Win against Arizona Thursday night and that excitement will only continue to blossom; lose, and who knows what will happen.