The drought, now in its second decade, begs for the questions to be asked.
Can UCLA ever be considered an elite college football team again?
Can UCLA even compete in its own conference on a regular basis?
It’s been 15 years since the Bruins’ last appearance in the Rose Bowl — a 1999 loss to Wisconsin — or any elite bowl game, for that matter, and UCLA seems like a program mired in mediocrity despite having one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country at its doorstep.
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This year’s team looked like it was primed to make a run at taking its place among the nation’s best.
So, what’s the problem?
“We’re building something, and that takes time,” said third-year UCLA coach Jim Mora Jr. “I think you can draw from our experience and use it to become a better team, not just in the future, but against Kansas State on Friday, which is what I’m focused on.”
Friday’s Alamo Bowl between No. 14 UCLA (9-3) and No. 11 Kansas State (9-3) isn’t where the Bruins or their fans thought they would be back when the season started. The won four straight and rose to No. 8 in the rankings before back-to-back home losses to Utah and Oregon.
The Bruins seemed to right the ship after that, however, winning five straight games before a disheartening, 31-10 loss to Stanford in their regular-season finale that cost them a shot at the Pac-12 South title.
“We want to be able to get over that loss and move on,” UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley said. “But it still hurts. We know what we missed out on.”
While the Alamo Bowl might seem like a disappointment, a closer look shows that the Bruins are getting progressively better with Mora leading the way.
A win over K-State would give the Bruins back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1998, and would represent back-to-back bowl victories for the first time since winning eight straight bowl games from 1983 to 1991.
Under Mora, the Bruins have been to three straight bowls following a Holiday Bowl loss to Baylor in 2012 and a Sun Bowl win over Virginia Tech last season.
“We’ve had a good week of practice,” Mora said. “They’re anxious to play ... it will be a tooth-and-nail battle, and as I’ve said before, a great measuring stick for where we are as a program by playing against an established program such as Kansas State.”
The Bruins’ biggest obstacles are Oregon and Stanford — they’ve also won three straight over rival USC — and whether or not Mora will head back to the NFL. He’s been tied to openings with the New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers in the last few weeks.
Mora, who has coached the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks, brushed off talk of the NFL on Thursday.
UCLA hasn’t beaten Stanford since 2008 and hasn’t beaten Oregon since 2007.
“Oregon isn’t what we judge ourselves against and Stanford isn’t what we judge ourselves against,” Mora said. “We’re judging ourselves by how well we play. And we haven’t played well against those teams.”
The attitude within the Bruins’ inner circle is one of optimism, and hope for the future. A win over K-State could vastly change the perception of this season, and players and coaches aren’t shying away from that.
“It’s been fun watching these kids grow up in the system and with Coach Mora, and the culture that he is developing at UCLA,” UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. “It’s been something that, after doing this coaching business for 34 years, has given me a lot of great memories.
“I mean, it’s an experience that I haven’t had a chance to go through is to grow up with a football team. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Several times this week, Mora has taken the opportunity to praise K-State coach Bill Snyder and what he’s built with the Wildcats.
Maybe it’s a sign of things to come for the Bruins.
“Observing a legend gives me a chance to learn,” Mora said of Snyder during Thursday’s news conference. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career to be around some tremendous coaches and tremendous administrators, and I’m sitting next to one of the finest that college football has ever known.
“I think I’m always in a position to learn and I try to do so.”