February 04, 2010
At UCLA, maybe more than anywhere else over the last decade, all success is relative. For example: Rick Neuheisel's second full recruiting haul Wednesday was the Bruins' best in ages, a top-10 class in the estimation of every major service. The recruits include a dozen touted locals and the first five-star signee of Neuheisel's tenure, Oregon defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who also delivered signing day's most impressive Oscar speech before putting on a Bruins cap. UCLA snapped up late signatures from USC targets Dietrich Riley and Josh Shirley in the afternoon, which they added to the standing commitments from SoCal natives Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh, Malcolm Jones and Jordon James, all whom ranked among Rivals' top 200 overall prospects nationally. Except for the glaring absence of a quarterback following one-time commit Brett Nottingham's late defection to Stanford, the group as a whole might have been greeted as a breakthrough on the trail after a pair of good-not-great efforts in Neuheisel's first classes in 2008-09.
But by the other crucial measure in L.A., proximity to USC, even a step forward in any other context isn't necessarily getting the Bruins any closer to the Trojans' ballpark in terms of sheer talent on hand:
The first thing those numbers should show -- and expect the preseason polls to reflect this, to an extent -- is that the Bruins have no more excuses for feeling satisfied with 6-6 seasons that end with a close game against a MAC also-ran in the EagleBank Bowl. Physically, this is obviously a team that should be going into the annual cross-town battle in late November with the Pac-10 title on the line; the last time that was the case was 2005, when the Leinart/Bush Trojans humiliated the 9-1 Bruins, 66-14, to lock up a spot in the national title game. With a trio of solid, more or less Rose Bowl-worthy classes under its belt and a third-year quarterback who's taken his licks (quite literally) over the course of an entire season, UCLA has no reason to set its sights short of nine or even 10 wins next fall. At this pace, that should be the standard soon for every season; if it's not, Neuheisel will be feeling some heat for failing to make good on the quality at his disposal. This year, his fourth, is the year the Bruins have to begin to make that move.
Whether that means making a move on USC's hold on the rivalry (the Trojans won eight of nine against UCLA under Pete Carroll, all but one by at least 17 points) is another story. Talent-wise, the Bruins (like everyone else in the Pac-10 and almost everyone else nationally) are still looking up at SC, and the transition from Carroll to the far less accomplished Kiffin over the next year or two is Neuheisel's big chance to close that gap. But it couldn't have been very encouraging Wednesday night to watch Kiffin's first, hastily-assembled class across town draw rave reviews for a late surge that landed headliners from all over the country -- Markeith Ambles (Georgia), Seantrel Henderson (Minnesota) and Nickell Robey (Florida) on signing day alone. If Henderson follows through on his commitment, that crop will rival any that Carroll brought in over the previous decade, and put the pressure squarely on Neuheisel, who isn't going to out-talk or out-excite Team Kiffin on the trail anymore than he could Carroll. Either the NCAA drops the hammer on the Trojans when it reviews the long-awaited case against former SC star Reggie Bush later this month, or (more likely) "Slick Rick" and his staff will have to flatly out-coach the new kids on the block between the stripes. This, they may be able to handle.