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Is this the year Chip Kelly awakens UCLA? We may find out Saturday

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What happens when a school hires a coach because he does everything fast — run plays, win, heck, even talks — only to have him deliver a rebuilding process that is either painfully slow or destined to never arrive?

We may find out Saturday, when Chip Kelly and UCLA, stagnant for three seasons, host LSU in a game that will serve as a referendum on, or perhaps reboot for, the Bruin program.

Beat the Tigers on national television in front of a huge home crowd and Kelly could be on his way to having no one care about his first three seasons yielding a measly 10 victories. Those lost years will be recalled as part of the process for finally unlocking an obvious, yet long dormant, power in Westwood.

But lose, especially big, and the puzzlement continues of how and why this seemingly ideal marriage of innovative coach and L.A. hot spot hasn’t, and perhaps never will, work out.

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(Oh, and if you want to flip this around, LSU coach Ed Orgeron somehow has almost as much to prove even though he led the Tigers to a national championship just two years ago. A 5-5 season in 2020 is enough that he’s coaching for his reputation as well. That’s life in the SEC.)

“It’s a huge game,” Kelly said on Monday. “A really, really good football team in LSU … It should be a great game. One of the featured games from a TV standpoint this week.”

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly during an NCAA football game against Hawaii on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
UCLA and head coach Chip Kelly are +125 underdogs according to BetMGM for Saturday's game against LSU. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

Kelly was quick to note that LSU and its players are dealing with far bigger issues than football. The devastation of Hurricane Ida sent the Tigers to Houston this week and looms over all of their thoughts.

A game is going to be played though, and it's the perfect opportunity for Kelly to prove he’s still the guy he was at the University of Oregon from 2009-12. Nothing was slow then.

He won fast — the Ducks were in the national title game his second season and he went 46-7 overall.

He called plays fast — when he jumped from Oregon to the NFL, his Philadelphia Eagles opened the season running four plays in the first minute. 

“I don’t think you can get too much faster than that,” Michael Vick, himself pretty fast, said at the time.

He even talks fast — the barrage of verbiage makes it seem like he’s trying to get through all conversations as soon as possible so he can return to drawing up plays.

After four seasons in the NFL and one year with ESPN, Kelly decided to return to the college ranks. Florida and Tennessee wanted him, but he chose UCLA. The combination of Kelly’s offense and talented Southern California recruits seemed impossible to fail.

Then his first three years yielded a 10-21 record.

But even when the fanfare of his hire was fresh, Kelly was preaching patience.

It's just few took Kelly seriously when he spoke about not chasing recruiting rankings, but finding players who would fit inside the system and on campus. Or they rolled their eyes when he talked about being “process-driven” and not results-obsessed.

They figured the victories would come. They just haven’t.

A lot could change on Saturday though. UCLA looked great beating Hawaii, 44-10, last week for the 11th win of the Kelly era. They even did it running a vanilla offense that LSU couldn’t scout.

Blowing out Hawaii doesn’t assure UCLA is a good team, but good teams would blow out Hawaii. Maybe most importantly, they looked like a Chip Kelly team — tough to stop on the run, ball hawking on defense, lots of speed, well coached and fundamentally sound.

No one was more impressive than running back Zach Charbonnet, who had 106 yards and three touchdowns on just six first-half carries.

“The kid’s a beast,” said linebacker Bo Calvert. “He’s going to run through people’s faces.”

Charbonnet is from Oaks Christian in Westlake Village, but chose Michigan over UCLA out of high school only to transfer last offseason.

“We swung and missed the first time and hit the second,” Kelly said.

He represents a transfer-heavy roster that is both experienced and talented. It’s what Kelly says he wants — part of building the proper team.

After four seasons, he has no excuse but to have built it. The task at hand won't be easy. LSU is big, fast and talented across the board. They won the 2019 national title for a reason. And UCLA will need a lot more from quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

Still, this is UCLA. This is Chip Kelly’s UCLA, actually. Four years in, it was expected to win these kinds of games. It’s time to show it.

“I don’t think it gets any bigger than this,” Thompson-Robinson said.

Not during the Kelly era it hasn’t. They’ve lost so often there hasn’t been a truly big game yet. But it’s here now, mighty LSU in the Rose Bowl just as UCLA looks like UCLA was supposed to look, giving Chip a chance to prove that slow is the new fast.