With their recent 31-14 win over Cal in the books, UCLA is well poised to make a bowl game in 2011.
At 4-4, the Bruins are only two wins away from becoming bow eligible with four games still to play. If they continue their .500 pace for the rest of the season, an invitation to Las Vegas or better could very well be waiting.
Positive feeling has pervaded Westwood in the afterglow of a satisfying win, so in that spirit, here are five reasons UCLA will make a bowl game this season.
Despite having two huge games against USC and Arizona State still to come, UCLA has both Pac-12 newcomers still to play. Utah and Colorado have only one conference win between them, so the Bruins should be favored to win both games.
Beating the Buffaloes and Utes allows the Bruins to play with less pressure against USC at season's end. If they lose to ASU and drop one of those games, beating the Trojans becomes the difference between making a bowl game or being left out come December.
While I think USC is beatable this year, the Bruins haven't won in the Coliseum since 1997. With Matt Barkley playing like a Heisman contender, UCLA will not want to have their season finale rivalry game decide their fate.
If they upset Arizona State this coming weekend at the Rose Bowl, UCLA would catapult into first place in the Pac-12 South. With a win over the Sun Devils, they then can also forgive a lost game against either Colorado or Utah without being forced to beat the Trojans on Nov. 26.
Getting to bowl is doable for the 2011 Bruins, but they'll need to take care of business against Colorado and Utah for that to happen.
What we saw in last week's victory over California was not so much an improved UCLA defense, but a defense completely reborn. For the first time all season, it looked as if the players were having fun on defense, instead of the frustrated, deject vibes fans had been getting in previous outings.
The Bruins schemed well for the Bears in the secondary, but it wouldn't have mattered if they hadn't gotten superb pressure from their front seven.
Moving DE Datone Jones inside to replace suspended DT Cassius Marsh was a stroke of (maybe accidental) genius by defensive coordinator Joe Tresey. Jones hounded Zach Maynard all night, sacking him twice while leading a defense that forced five Cal turnovers and made six tackles for losses.
Much has been made about Tevin McDonald's three picks and rightly so. For a freshman to have that big of an impact on defense is huge for UCLA going forward, especially when most of the secondary isn't 100 percent healthy.
If the Bruins can bring that kind of defensive intensity in each of their final four games, they will be well on their way to a bowl appearance. If they continue to force turnovers like that, who knows, maybe even winning out isn't impossible.
Key to the success of any pistol offense is the play at quarterback, specifically the QB's ability fake and run the ball effectively. After three years in the system, Kevin Prince had one of his finest games as a Bruin Saturday night because he was able to do both and say healthy at the same time.
Ever since Richard Brehaut went down with a left leg fracture against Washington State, the injury stakes have been raised at UCLA. Brett Hundley has been named the number two QB under Prince, but Rick Neuheisel wants to keep his redshirt on for the duration of the year. The sum of this means that Prince is effectively running without a safety net under him should he get hurt, or even miss a down.
Knowing that, fans will be forgiven if they catch their breath every time Prince scampers up the sideline. Infamous for his injury-plagued career, Prince is running the ball surprisingly without fear. He led all rushers in last weeks game, taking 19 carries for 163 yards. Cal often didn't even know who had the ball, tackling decoy runners as Prince dashed upfield.
If Prince can stay healthy, execute the fakes well and improve his passing, UCLA will make a bowl game.
While the pistol offense needs a quarterback who's a running threat, it needs almost just as much running backs who can be credible threats on the ground. Without the defense fearing gashes of yards by the RBs, fakes won't work and the QB will have nowhere to run.
Luckily, UCLA has two of the best running backs in the Pac-12. There are few other backs conference teams would rather have in the flat than Johnathan Franklin, whose skill at getting to the second level gives he Bruins explosiveness on every handoff.
Despite having an inconsistent middle of the season, Franklin is still eighth in the conference with 70.6 yards per game on the ground.
If Franklin is quick-strike lightning, big Derrick Coleman has to be the Bruins' rumbling thunder. Completely deaf without his hearing aid, Coleman has been bruising in short yardage, scoring three touchdowns last week for nine on the year.
While he lacks Franklin's speed, Coleman can run better between the tackles, giving UCLA the physicality they need to convert short third downs.
The Bruins' rushing attack is second only to Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12, and if they can continue to average over 187 yards per game, they will make the postseason.
If nothing else, the Bruins are playing for head coach Rick Neuheisel's job. The vitriol and disgust thrown at Neuheisel by some fans borders on cruel. The general perception has reached such a point of disillusionment that even winning out, combined with a bowl game win, might not win every fan over.
UCLA AD Dan Guerrero has said publicly that even a losing record might not be enough to axe the former Bruin great, but it will condemn him in the eyes of Westwood. As a team, UCLA knows that if they cannot get to a bowl and win it, Guerrero might have no other choice but to eventually bend to the will of donors and fans.
Given Neuheisel's livelihood as an incentive to succeed, you can bet the players will be motivated to go out and win for him. If he continues to earn the player's respect by doing everything he can to win, they will reciprocate on the field.
An upset win over Arizona State next week would be a big step in the right direction.