When it comes to college football, throw strategy out the window.
Take talent and kick it to the curb.
Coaching, skill, speed, size – toss ‘em out.
When it really comes down to it, could this game really just come down to…luck?
Ultimately, I believe success in college football comes down to two things above all: luck and depth. Yes, talent matters, obviously. But healthy talent matters. Yes coaching matters. But they need healthy players to coach.
So, to luck and depth.
Depth is self-determined, accomplished by good recruiting and favorable transfers, both of which UCLA has maintained at a far better clip under Rick Neuheisel than his predecessor.
But luck? Luck is fickle, unfair, often unkind.
Perhaps Spaulding Field was built on an Indian burial ground, construction workers walking under a thousand ladders while smashing a hundred mirrors in the process, all while a herd of black cats scooted on by. Perhaps Neuheisel spilled an entire crate of salt and didn’t have the foresight to shovel it over his left shoulder. Maybe he just didn’t look a friend in the eye while toasting.
There’s little doubt that the Bruins have been downright downtrodden in the fortune department during Neuheisel’s tenure, a dead albatross away from utter catastrophe. Pat Cowan and Ben Olson in 2008. The three freshmen (bad choices made by them, but still, bad luck for UCLA and Neuheisel). Eddie Williams breaking an ankle in 2009, Kai Maiava and Datone Jones lost for the season in 2010 and joined by an academically ineligible Jeff Baca. Kevin Prince’s numerous calamaties. There’s Nik Abele (lost for his career) and Patrick Larimore (lost for half of last year). I’m forgetting numerous more.
What bad luck couldn’t do to the Bruins, defections – legal, religious or otherwise – has done. All that depth, all that forward progress halted by a witch with a broomstick in one hand and an axe to grind in the other.
Look at the stats: As Phil Steele so intricately studied, UCLA lost 59 starts to injury last season, 22.35 percent on the year, third most in the country. That means more than one out of every five UCLA starters didn’t start on a given day. The Bruins were far behind North Carolina in the bad luck department – the Tar Heels lost 89 starts last year! – but far, far ahead of every other Pac-12 school. The closest conference opponent? Oregon State, with 21 starts lost, or 7.95 percent. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly must’ve worn all bunches of green on St. Patrick’s Day, as Oregon lost six – SIX – total starts to injury in their charmed 2010 season.
But could that luck be turning?
With the news today that Baca might be almost three full weeks early in his return from a broken ankle suffered in spring ball, the ever-present football gods seem to be smiling on UCLA right now. The Bruins emerged relatively unscathed during fall camp, with only an injury to Jamie Graham of the major variety. Guys who were bothered throughout camp with minor bumps and bruises and strains appear to be on the mend.
And then there’s depth.
For the first time in Neuheisel’s tenure, the Bruins are legitimately two-deep at most positions, not just some. In some cases over the last few years, the drop-off from first-team to second-team has been a nose-dive. Sometimes, it was like falling off a cliff. Think about when Larimore and Steve Sloan got hurt last year and the starting middle linebacker job went to a true freshman, talented or not, in Jordan Zumwalt. Or when Olson and Cowan were hurt on the same day, forcing Kevin Craft into the starting lineup. Or when Prince got hurt and gave way to Craft in 2009 or a still-maturing Brehaut in 2010. Or when the losses of Baca and Maiava stripped the Bruins of their two best linemen, forcing not only Darius Savage and Ryan Taylor into the starting lineup, but robbing any and all depth.
Now, aside from question marks at cornerback (which might be assuaged by moving Tony Dye over in some situations, or by getting Anthony Jefferson and Graham back relatively soon), tight end and the offensive line, the Bruins are surprisingly stable everywhere else on the field.
So when other reporters or fans of rival schools scoff at my contention that UCLA could potentially go 8-4 or so, I just point to this: luck and depth. If the Bruins can avoid a few broken mirrors this year and can wait for that depth to kick in, I don’t think I’ll be scoffed at by the end of the year. But it’s a big if.