LOS ANGELES – The rest of the UCLA football games could go a long way in deciding the future of the program.
If the Bruins (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12 on aggregate) can win both games, they will live up to some of the expectations that coach Chip Kelly was brought in to fulfill.
The nine-win season would almost match the number of wins Kelly had won in his first three seasons (10-21) at Westwood. It will also be the Bruins’ best season since a 10–3 finish under Jim Mora in 2014.
Kelly has been in the hot seat since before the season but after clearing several significant hurdles this season, a contract extension may be imminent.
“My agent handles everything, so I’m not worried about it,” Kelly said. “The next most important thing to (our team) is playing Cal.”
After four years, Kelly appears to be settled. He and his staff are responsible for recruiting most of the players on the roster, and have established a culture that players have bought into.
Asked during Monday’s pre-practice press conference if he’d like an extension, Kelly quickly replied “Yeah, I love coaching here.”
Regardless, UCLA Athletic Director Martin Germond and Chancellor Jean Block will have to decide whether they’ve settled on Kelly before offering an extension.
Kelly is currently in the fourth year of a five-year contract. If the administration decides to move on from Kelly before January 15, when the fourth year of the contract officially ends, the school will have to pay her $9 million.
If it is under contract after that date, UCLA may decide to part with it without paying for that purchase. At that point, the school would also have limited options for finding a quality replacement, given the majority of coach-related business that took place in December.
It may be in the university’s best interest to evaluate what it is capable of achieving this season, while understanding that there are many high-profile job openings, including those at USC, LSU and Florida, this off-season. Can make it more difficult to find a better option.
The Bruins beat rival USC at the Coliseum for the first time since last weekend of 2013, scoring the most points in a game within the series. The program also secured Bowl eligibility last week and will be participating in a Bowl game for the first time since 2017.
The Bruins stumbled this season against teams with winning records, but secured a signature victory over the then 16th-ranked LSU (now 5–6) in the 38–27 Rose Bowl. It was the first time a Pac-12 team had defeated an SEC-ranked team since 2017.
The Bruins’ 2-0 start also propelled them into the AP Top 25 for the first time in four years.
Germond is on a mission to help return the athletic department to elite status, including the football and basketball programs.
While a potential nine-win season would hardly be classified as elite, given what programs like Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State are doing, it would be a step in the right direction.
The question is, can UCLA go ahead this season?
It remains to be seen, but there could be a step back next season. The roster includes senior starters in every position on defense and a number of key contributors on offense. Many players who still have eligibility, such as senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, may depart at the end of the season.
The Bruins’ recent success could make the event an attractive destination for players entering the transfer portal for this off-season.
UCLA will honor its seniors ahead of the home finale against Cal at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night. There are some clear names who will attend the ceremony, due to their super-senior status, but others remain uncertain with the option to take advantage of the additional year of eligibility that the NCAA provided to student-athletes in 2020.
Running backs Briton Brown, Ethan Fern, defensive backs Obi Aboh and Quantrez Knight and offensive lineman Paul Grattan Jr are among the super seniors.
All those players, outside of Fernia, joined the program in 2020 and made an immediate impact.
“I think it’s everything I wanted to be and imagined it to be,” Aboh said of coming to UCLA. “From the beginning, there was a bit of adversity with the COVID year and not knowing what was going to happen with the team and the 2020 season… for the first time, I would paint it as a rollercoaster… but in the end, we Getting stronger and having a great time.”
Kelly has left the option for another senior to walk the ceremony, but would not go far to say that it would mean he is not returning next year.
“Anyone who wants to run as a senior on Saturday is allowed,” Kelly said. “If there is eligibility remaining, we’ll figure out what’s in the best interest (for them) in terms of where they are and how they’re going to do it.”
Thompson-Robinson has not made any decisions about her future and will likely not announce anything publicly for several weeks.
Senior defensive lineman Martin Andrus Jr. and senior linebacker Shia Pitts mentioned that they would consider returning next season.
If Kelly returns, he will be tasked with managing the roster without exceeding the 85 scholarship limit.
“You can only be 85 (players) from a scholarship standpoint and 110 (including walk-ons) from a roster standpoint,” Kelly said. “This year roster management is something that is at the top of everyone’s list, just because of what happened with the COVID and the COVID exemptions and things like that.”
The Bruins had only one player entry into the portal during the season, but Kelly expects plenty of activity across the country on Sunday after the final regular-season games for most FBS teams have ended.
“I understand it,” Kelly said of the transfer portal. “If a kid isn’t playing and has the opportunity and doesn’t have to sit down and maybe go somewhere else to play, that’s a personal decision they’ll make. For us, our whole mindset has been that ‘ If it is your decision, how can we help you?’ There’s a surefire way to go about it.”