UCLA’s bitter failure magnifies USC’s immediate success

All of our USC-UCLA coverage on Sunday focused on the Trojans, so it’s clear we’re not primarily focused on UCLA’s failure. Celebrating USC’s success is and should be the focus here, and moreover, it has been. That is unmistakable.

However: We can’t completely allow this moment to pass by and not reflect at least once — in one piece — about UCLA’s failure. There are lessons to be found here. There is a worthwhile perspective to be shared. So, let’s share it.

The fundamental thesis to advance on this Monday morning, as we wrap up UCLA and make the transition to Notre Dame week and other subjects, is that UCLA’s failure and USC’s success magnify each other. We’ll explain below:

UCLA 2022 SCHEDULE

UCLA’s 2022 schedule was set up for success: only four road games out of 12. Three of those road games were at Cal (this next weekend), Arizona State, and Colorado. None of those teams will make bowl games. While theoretically possible to have an easier schedule, it’s not realistic to imagine a better schedule. This was as good as it gets in terms of setting up a team to do well.

UCLA had one tough road game: Oregon. That’s it. The Bruins had their other tough games — Utah, Washington, USC — at home.

They still couldn’t make the Pac-12 Championship Game or win 10 games.

DTR YEAR 5

Dorian Thompson-Robinson used the extra year of pandemic eligibility to return for a fifth season at UCLA. This was his big chance, getting the soft schedule noted above on a roster with graduate transfers which gave the Bruins a lot of experience. We saw a much better version of DTR through nine games. He entered the middle of November with a chance to play for a Pac-12 title, a New Year’s Six bowl, even a playoff berth, though the chances of that were always slim.

The consecutive losses to Arizona (only 28 points scored) and USC (a tidal wave of turnovers) took a lot of the shine off DTR’s season.

He waited five years for a chance to do something big. He got that chance … and he whiffed.

CHIP KELLY

Through nine games, Kelly — making use of the offensive talent on his roster — regained his fastball. UCLA looked a lot like Oregon’s 2009-2012 teams when it defeated Utah. It was the old formula of ruthless, aggressive, high-energy offense wearing down an opposing defense, and the defense just needing to make one or two key plays to support the offense.

In the last two games, we saw the UCLA team of 2018-2021: impatient, mistake-prone, and unable to limit damage on defense.

This was an all-in year for Kelly, the year to revive UCLA football. He was on schedule for nine games, and then it all came apart at the end, a truly crushing collapse.

KELLY AND DTR

UCLA’s head coach and quarterback had a five-year marriage, which is unheard of in major college football. This fifth year together was easily the best year Chip and DTR have had as a tandem, and yet it still didn’t translate into a Pac-12 title game berth (let alone a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl).

Stop and absorb that. UCLA built something over five years, and yet what the Bruins built was still not good enough.

This leads us to the larger discussion of how UCLA’s failures magnify USC’s successes (and vice-versa).

LINCOLN RILEY IN ONE YEAR VS CHIP KELLY IN FIVE YEARS

Lincoln Riley did in one year what Chip Kelly could not do in five years: Make the Pac-12 Championship Game.

TRANSFER PORTAL

Every USC skeptic who doubted the Trojans could make the Pac-12 title game in one year simply discounted the centrality and importance of the transfer portal in being able to remake rosters.

Caleb Williams instantly became the Pac-12’s best quarterback.

Jordan Addison instantly became the Pac-12’s best receiver.

Travis Dye instantly became a top-three Pac-12 running back.

The whole “but this team was 4-8 last year, it surely can’t come all the way back in one year” line of argument underplayed the magnitude of the portal.

Lincoln Riley’s use of the portal was — and is — ahead of the curve. It made all the difference for USC.

SUCCESS CAN COME SOONER

While plenty of situations in the lower tiers of the Power Five or the upper reaches of the Group of Five require patience, more resourced programs shouldn’t think success is instantly unattainable.

Yes, USC did have to be patient this year in terms of acknowledging its defensive depth was just not ready to deliver top-flight results on that side of the ball.

However, USC always did have the offensive chops to offset its defensive weaknesses. We have seen that play out, to the extent that the Trojans are playing for the Pac-12 title and a lot more heading into late November.

Patience is a virtue, but it shouldn’t mean postponing success if it’s attainable.

USC went for it, and it was rewarded.

QUICK SUCCESS DOESN'T MEAN WINNING IS EASY

If you exclude the 2020 throwaway season, USC had reached the Pac-12 title game just once before this season. Winning IS hard. UCLA’s failure under Chip and DTR in Year 5 magnifies that point.

Winning comes when a program fully invests in success and doesn’t settle for mediocrity. USC finally did that after letting Clay Helton run the show far too long.

UCLA IN 2023

The Bruins’ failure to make the Pac-12 title game means they probably won’t win a conference title anytime soon.

UCLA will undergo a full rebuild in 2023 while USC will build its roster and be far deeper than it was this year.

UCLA IN THE TRANSFER PORTAL

Is Chip Kelly willing to use the transfer portal to find his next DTR, but not in a five-year relationship? Kelly had a chance to win the Pac-12 because he had a fifth-year QB. In the future, he can’t expect that kind of dynamic to recur. He will need to get transfers who can make an immediate impact.

UCLA IN THE BIG TEN

UCLA will have to go through USC, Michigan, and Ohio State if it wants to win a Big Ten championship starting in 2024.

UCLA CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP DROUGHT

The Bruins have not won a conference title since 1998. That drought, after missing this huge chance in 2022, is likely to reach 30 years if not more.

TENNESSEE PARALLEL

Tennessee had a really good season this year, but it still did not win the SEC. The Vols haven’t won a conference title since 1998, the same as UCLA.

NEBRASKA

UCLA and Tennessee are joined by Nebraska as prominent programs without a conference championship this century. Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999.

Winning is hard. It shows how important this opportunity was for UCLA … and also why the failure to seize it is so crushing for the Bruins.

USC'S STANDARD

USC fans insist on excellence in football. They realized Clay Helton left behind a thin cupboard. However, they did insist — and they did know — that getting an elite coach could quickly change everything.

They were right. Skeptics who doubted an instant transformation were wrong.

CONCLUSION

Sometimes the fan base actually knows better than the commentariat.

Story originally appeared on Trojans Wire