After 4th Straight Losing Season, What Is Going on with UCLA Football?

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2020

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly looks on in the second half during an NCAA college football game against Utah Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

UCLA grabbed plenty of headlines when it hired Chip Kelly in November 2017, but the Pac-12 program has steadily slipped from the national radar and become a college football afterthought.

What's happening in Westwood these days?

Despite the initial excitement surrounding Kelly's hire, the situation hasn't improved a whole lot.

Although UCLA notched a three-game winning streak in 2019, the campaign went as expectedwhich is to say, badly. In front of a Rose Bowl-low 43,848 fans per home game, the team mustered a 4-8 record after a 3-9 year in Kelly's first season.

The Bruins showed glimmers of progress, pulling off a wild 67-63 victory over then-No. 19 Washington State and toppling then-No. 24 Arizona State. It's fair to note Washington State slid to 6-7, removing some of the shine from that upset.

However, Kelly's team lost to Oklahoma and Utah by a combined score of 97-17, offering a clear reminder of the gap between the Bruins and top-tier schools. Throw in a 52-35 loss to a disheveled USC program, and UCLA managed only the smallest level of respectability with a 4-5 record in Pac-12 play. The Bruins haven't finished with a winning record since 2015.

The numbers tell an uglier story yet.

On defense, UCLA ranked 123rd out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 6.7 yards allowed per play. The unit surrendered 34.8 points per game while ranking 105th on third down and 104th in red-zone touchdown rate. Opposing quarterbacks threw 32 touchdowns and only five interceptions.

Ben Bolch @latbbolch

UCLA's defense finished the season ranked No. 112 out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense (456.3 yards allowed per game), No. 115 in scoring defense (34.8 points per game) and No. 129 in passing yards allowed (310.8 per game, a school record).

UCLA will never be a contender in Kelly's tenure if the defense continues to play as poorly as it has under coordinator Jerry Azzinaro. While not a stunning revelation, it's no less correct.

Note: Azzinaro's contract expires in February, per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times. He may or may not return in 2020.

New assistant Brian Norwood—who has eight years of experience as a coordinator and 20-plus as an assistant—is the latest hope for improvement, but the Bruins are digging themselves out of a monumentally deep hole.

Judging the offense's performance is slightly less straightforward. The scoring attack improved noticeably for a brief stretch but remains inefficient.

The Bruins topped six-plus yards per snap only twice in 2019. For reference, 54 FBS offenses averaged at least that much for the entire season.

Kelly cannot return to the "Blur" attack of his Oregon days, partly because substitution rules have since reduced the uptempo advantage. More than anything, the game has evolved in eight years; what he ran at Oregon has become common.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-RobinsonSean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The bigger problem is Kelly doesn't have the personnel to best execute his offense, a unit that is nowhere close to great but is reasonably promising. Still, that's a reflection on his roster handling.

Since he arrived, more than 75 players have left the team—which has produced an unhealthy reliance on young players. Plus, 13 players have entered the transfer portal this offseason, including would-be starting wide receiver Theo Howard and two-year starting offensive lineman Christaphany Murray.

Murray's departure is a crushing hit to a position that simply can't absorb it.

UCLA ranked 119th in tackles for loss and 120th in sacks allowed per game last season. That's bad enough. Yet the staff has consistently whiffed on top recruiting targets, failing to both add usable talent and stockpile depth on the offensive line in front of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

The Bruins are whiffing on marquee players left, right, up and down.

During the 2019 cycle, Kelly and Co. landed only one of the 47 in-state prospects with a 4- or 5-star billing (Sean Rhyan). In 2020, the Bruins signed zero of 30 such recruits.

David Woods @daviddavidwoods

Of #UCLA's 19 current commitments/signees, 10 are from out of state, and 6 of those are from out of the region. Whatever you think of the quality of player they've gotten, that's not the ideal formula for recruiting in one of the best states for talent in the country.

Over the two classes combined, they've added just three 4-star talents. It's true that star prospects guarantee nothing; no program has won a national title because of ratings. But no champion has hoisted the trophy without elite recruiting, either.

This is an alarming trend heading into Kelly's third year.

Whether he overestimated the UCLA brand, his appeal as a former NFL coach and once-successful college boss or a combination of both, Kelly's recruiting approach isn't working.

That, or he's the smartest guy in the room and has identified an unforgettable mix of underrated players outside talent-rich California. While we cannot rule that out, it's an enormous long shot.

Though the Bruins have a top-30 haul in 2020, the dearth of high-end talent is on the verge of becoming a panic-inducing reality. UCLA has zero 2021 commits. Reigning Pac-12 champion Oregon already has five 4-stars, including four California kids.

Recruiting rankings will change throughout the year, and UCLA will add commitments in the offseason. But for Kelly's short-term success and the program's future, the Bruins can ill afford another subpar year on the trail.

Two losing seasons, never-ending roster turnover and poor recruiting are morphing 2020 into a make-or-break season for Kelly.


Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.