Part of the Doc's Pac-10 Week.
As beleaguered as he's often seemed since agreeing to pull his alma mater out of the quicksand of the Karl Dorrell era, at least Rick Neuheisel has enjoyed the luxury of patience. Saddled with on of the most reliably mediocre program in the country after five milquetoast seasons under Dorrell, overshadowed by Pete Carroll's crosstown juggernaut at USC and forced to deal with a curious bit of marketing hubris before his first game, Neuheisel earned more sympathy than scorn as the Bruins limped to a 4-8 finish in his 2008 debut. By contrast, last year's 7-6 follow-up hardly amounted to a breakthrough, but with a freshman quarterback operating behind a largely revamped, injury-ravaged offensive line, it seemed like a reasonable step forward.
Entering his third year, though, Neuheisel is clearly past the point of no return where eighth-place finishes and lackluster bowl bids against MAC also-rans are concerned. He has a hugely respected offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, overseeing a second-year starter at quarterback behind a suddenly seasoned offensive line, and a defense that led the Pac-10 by far in both tackles for loss and interceptions behind two of the brightest up-and-coming defenders in the league, linebacker Akeem Ayers and safety Rahim Moore. And most importantly, for the first time, Neuheisel has a lineup overwhelmingly of his own making, made up three straight top-20 recruiting classes that all manage to fall in the general ballpark of USC's chart-topping February hauls, after five straight years of watching the Trojans clean up with no local competition.
In some ways, that gap is closing all the time. Neuheisel's second full recruiting class last winter was the Bruins' best in ages, a top-10 crop in the estimation of every major ranking service. The specifics included a dozen touted locals and the first five-star signee of Neuheisel's tenure, Oregon defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, as well as late commitments from USC targets Dietrich Riley and Josh Shirley (now at Washington after being booted from the team with two lesser-regarded signees last month) on signing day. Those names were added to the standing commitments from SoCal natives Anthony Barr, Cassius Marsh, Malcolm Jones and Jordon James, all of 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 major breakthrough on the trail after a pair of good-not-great efforts in Neuheisel's first classes in 2008-09. Riley, Jones and Odighizuwa have all made moves toward cracking the regular lineup in their first few practices this preseason.
At this point, though, the first conclusion to draw from that success is that the Bruins have no more excuses for feeling satisfied with 6-6 seasons that end in a narrow escape against Temple in the EagleBank Bowl. Athletically, with a trio of solid, more or less Rose Bowl-worthy classes under its belt and a third-year quarterback who's (quite literally) taken his licks over the course of an entire season, UCLA should have no reason to set its sights short of nine or even 10 wins. And with last November's on-field collapse by USC, the abrupt transition from Pete Carroll to Lane Kiffin in January and the onset of potentially crippling NCAA sanctions in June, the iron will never be hotter to strike back against the Trojans' total dominance of the rivalry over the last decade.
But the last time anything other than local bragging rights was at stake against USC was 2005, when the unstoppable Leinart/Bush Trojans humiliated the 9-1 Bruins, 66-14, to lock up a spot in the national title game. And rather than a rising Pac-10 contender, the pundits this offseason have resoundingly pegged UCLA to finish eighth in the conference at every available opportunity, which would almost certainly mean an absence from any bowl on any tier. For a program some people imagine to be on the verge of dominating the next decade, that's not a very encouraging trajectory – especially compared to the more immediately gratifying turnarounds engineered over the last two years by the conference's other charismatic young head coaches, Jim Harbaugh and Steve Sarkisian, at Stanford and Washington.
In other words, if the window is open for a rising power to stake its claim to USC's throne, there is no indication yet that UCLA will be the daring opportunist that swings through it. And if there's still no indication by the time the Trojans come to the Rose Bowl in November, people are going to stop saying "yet" and start wondering exactly what Neuheisel is bringing to the table that his much-abused predecessor didn't. Year Three is supposed to be the traditional "leap forward" year in a rebuilding job, the year the new coach's own recruits, schemes and philosophies come together to provide a big dose of optimism that this thing just might work. Outside of the nice recruiting classes, the absence of a really horrible loss and the back-to-back upsets over Tennessee (neither of which looks all that impressive in retrospect), there has been precious little to be optimistic about in years one and two.
Not that things have turned pessimistic among the believers; far from it. But if the good vibes that seem to follow Neuheisel around campus are going to survive into Year Four, this is the season the Bruins have to turn the corner.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.