Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Mora confident Bruins will handle hype
By Ted Miller
The 2014 preseason top 10 is laden with the usual suspects: Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Auburn, Michigan State, South Carolina and Baylor. While a couple of those teams aren't certifiable perennial powers, they all finished the 2013 season ranked among the top 13.
There is, however, a lone outlier: UCLA. It's ranked seventh in both the AP and coaches' polls, up nine spots from its final No. 16 ranking in 2013.
Lone outlier? That was UCLA's first end-of-season ranking since 2005, when it finished 16th in the AP poll and 13th with the coaches.
Lone outlier? The Bruins haven't been ranked in the preseason top 10 since 1998.
No team in the country is generating more buzz as a nouveau contender than UCLA. ESPN "College GameDay" pundits Lee Corso and Desmond Howard both predicted the Bruins would win the national championship in the first year of the College Football Playoff. Nine of 23 ESPN college football pundits picked the Bruins to at least make the playoff semifinals. Twelve picked them to win the Pac-12.
"I think we are a mature team, a focused team," coach Jim Mora said. "When you are a mature team and a focused team that practices hard, you get confidence from that."
Of course, college football history is full of teams that went rear end over tea kettle after being handed high preseason rankings. Florida was ranked 10th last year in the preseason and finished 4-8. USC was No. 1 in 2012 and finished 7-6. Sports Illustrated ranked Oregon State its 2001 preseason No. 1 but the Beavers tumbled to 5-6. Arizona started at No. 4 in 1999 but floundered to 6-6.
Bottom line: If you take a high preseason ranking and $1 to the bank for change, you'll still only get four quarters for your trouble.
Make no mistake, though, there's a good reason for these lofty estimations. A perusal of the Bruins' depth chart -- even if third-year coach Jim Mora insists he doesn't have one -- reveals a team with a lot of talent and few questions. It's not just Brett Hundley behind center. It's size, athleticism and experience just about everywhere. The Bruins are loaded with skill players and are physical at the line of scrimmage.
In fact, the most obvious preseason issue for UCLA isn't about personnel. It's about handling all the hype. While a high preseason ranking means Mora and his players have been doing something right, all the headlines, backslaps and gushing media accounts could become distractions. Players could become complacent, believing a high ranking means entitlement. As the klieg lights roll into Westwood, and the velvet ropes part at the hottest L.A. clubs, there's always a chance the team could lose its way.
No one is more aware of this than Mora. There's a sign posted in the locker room that Bruins players have alluded to throughout the offseason: "Don't listen to the noise." In other words, forget buzz. Remember the work."
"We focus on the day we are living in. We try to be great today and then we come back and try to be better tomorrow," Mora said. "If you don't concentrate and focus on the daily grind and being the best you can be that very day then you are going to lose track of who you are and where you are going."
While Mora is aware of the dangers of distraction, it's also pretty clear he's not obsessed with it like many coaches. While many elite programs shut down media access, UCLA is fairly open with reporters and has even allowed the Pac-12 Network to film a behind-the-scenes account of the Bruins' season, a weekly show called "The Drive," which focused on Arizona State and California last year.
Obviously, that accounted for decidedly mixed results on the field. The Sun Devils won the South Division, beating out UCLA, and Cal's season was a tale of woe.
"It won't be a distraction, not one single bit," Mora said.
Why does he believe that? Because of the culture that he believes has been established in his locker room. It's the foundation of his team's confidence, which comes from within, not without.
"It's probably maturity," he said. "I think we are a mature team, a focused team. When you are a mature team and a focused team that practices hard, you get confidence from that. I don't think you gain confidence from other people telling you you're good. Or other people putting expectations on you, labeling you as something. That confidence is internal. It comes from working hard every day."
Mora is a pretty bottom-line sort of guy. He knows that the hype -- and "The Drive" -- won't win the Bruins any games this year. Nor, for that matter, will it lose any. Whatever is going on around UCLA or the words used to describe the team, it's still all about talent, focus, preparation and executing on game day.