The luck…starts…here?

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.

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  • Tony marino

    My hats off the best in three years. Congrats!

  • Sec21R14S110

    So what you’re saying is…no more excuses! Every year we start out soooo optimistic about the upcoming season, but for some reason this year feels different. I honestly feel we are finally beginning to right the ship and get back on the track to respectability. I can’t take losing to ‘SC on an annual basis anymore!

  • Anonymous

    Classic post. How about talent, coaching, and hard work? How many years in a row of weak results can you blame on luck? Please save this post for Neuheisal’s year-end review as there’s a lot of good stuff that he can use to explain another sub-par season.

  • Rich

    Man, Jon, I hope you didn’t just jinx us with this article, excellent though it may be. ;)

    If there is a silver lining to all of those injuries last year, it’s that it’s a big reason for the depth we now currently (hope to, knock on wood) enjoy.

    It sure looks like all the pieces are in place for a strong run this year. Keeping my fingers crossed that the luck finally holds up. IF it does, then like you said, I see big things ahead for these Bruins!

  • ShutupLaker

    I’m a firm believer in luck, and I believe the harder I work, the luckier I get.

    Luck is merely the intersection of preparation and hard work.

    I’d rather be lucky than good…

  • Sunset Bruin

    Excellent post, Jon. However, I tend to agree with ShutupLaker above, that luck is the fruit of hard work and preparation.

    Rick has prepared for this year by recruiting stellar depth and perhaps going a little easier on the key guys at the fall scrimmage.

    Another element that is often overlooked regarding the injury bug that has plagued UCLA is the strength of schedule. It is a lot easier to go injury free when playing a FCS opponent (Northern Arizona, for example) than playing Texas.

  • localbruin

    Luck starts here? Who’s going to tell Prince and Brehaut?

  • BruinBrent

    While we were #3 for total injuries, we were #1 in injuries lost on offense! Explains a lot.

  • http://www.yahoo.com BruinRob

    Wow!! Jon, this is one of the best and most informative posts you’ve had that I can remember. You’ve echoed exactly what I’ve been thinking but unable to put it in writing as eloquently as you have. 2011 is going to be the season in which UCLA football returns in great fashion. Go Bruins!!

  • Is that the Bandwagon I hear?

    Now, all of a sudden, several MSM reporters are jumping on the UCLA Band Wagon. Well, I guess we’ll see, but could it actually be that they see the rest of the Pac-12 south’s depth at positions, and the meticulousness RN has been working on our schematics?

    Perhaps comparing the Pac 12′s Conference schedules with ours they see that UCLA is the 3rd toughest in the nation, again? Hmmmm, Say what you want about UCLA, but they schedule tougher games that u$c, oh and we do it the honest way, not by cheating. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll see some brightness my fellow Bruins, but always remember the ones who have stuck by this team through all of these tumultuous seasons, and those terrible injuries. Regardless of how we do, I will always take pride in the fact that we aren’t tOSU, Miami, u$Cheaters, etc. We are the mighty, mighty, BRUINS!!!

  • MichaelRyerson

    Never been one to use luck as an explanation for much of anything (except perhaps, my marriage) but I’m also sensitive to the vagaries of chance and the law of averages. So just let me say, WE’RE DUE, BABY!

  • timmah

    What gives me reason for optimism is the fact we are finaly starting to see the accumulation of depth on both lines. If the staff continues to recruit numbers on both lines we may be able to establish continuity that we havent had in years. And I really like the new coordinators as well, the urgency and intensity they seem to bring. I hope for 6-6 this year and a continuation of the move in what seems to be the right direction.

  • MichaelRyerson

    Never been one to use luck as an explanation for much of anything (except perhaps, my marriage) but I’m also sensitive to the vagaries of chance and the law of averages. So just let me say, WE’RE DUE, BABY!

  • ucla-of-the-rockies

    Booty11: Your ship is sinking. And you are not happy about it … And we laugh all the while.

  • GlendoraBruin

    Great article Jon!! I agree that our “luck” or lake thereof has been downright absurd. Let’s
    Hope the law of averages swing our way and we start seeing what we all expected 3 yrs. ago come to fruition.

  • What a joke

    @Booty11 u$Cheaters? HAHAHHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAAHAHHAHAHAHAHAAHHAHAHA….ahhhh, nobody cares about Cheaters who cheat their way to the top. Why don’t you go curl up with “Win Forever… And then bail when they catch you cheating” book, written by your lying, ditch the team he could care less about when the NCAA comes a knocking joke of a coach.

    Talk about u$c winning anything and you can’t help but laugh at the thought they never do it the right way!