It's Time to See if UCLA is Serious About Football
UCLA seems likely to ride out another year with Chip Kelly. Activity across town should cause a rethinking of that strategy.
I left the Rose Bowl on Saturday with a few thoughts. First, it was nice to get another clear victory over an inferior opponent, one that went from looking like a competitive game to a laugher in the second half. Second, I was not looking forward to the Chip Kelly discourse that had taken over in the aftermath of the victory, even knowing that I’m about to wade into those waters right now. But at least I figured those conversations could be had in a few weeks or so.
I woke up on Sunday and quickly realized that conversation needs to happen now.
You’ve probably seen the news by now, but on Sunday Southern Cal finally did what they’ve threatened to do for years by hiring a highly-qualified coach that can maximize the advantages they possess. Lincoln Riley is, of course, not guaranteed to be a success, but it is hard to look at this hiring as anything less than a slam-dunk for the Trojans. Riley is one of the best offensive minds in the sports, is a proven winner who has made multiple appearances in the College Football Playoffs, and is an impressive recruiter who is especially adept at getting top recruits from the SoCal area.
There is a strain of UCLA fans who view this news with dismissal. “Who cares what Southern Cal does?” they say. “As long as UCLA handles its own business, things will be fine.” And to an extent, they’re right - a UCLA that has its house in order can be competitive in the Pac-12. But that phrase “has its house in order” is doing a lot of the heavy lifting there, because UCLA most definitely does not have its house in order at the moment, and it’s the reason Martin Jarmond has a decision to make.
We need to be honest with where UCLA is at under Chip Kelly at this point. The Bruins are 8-4 on the season, which is a solid-enough mark in a vacuum, but not in the grand scheme of his UCLA tenure. Overall, Kelly is 18-25 over the four years he’s been in Westwood, good for the worst record in UCLA history. The offense has routinely been good to great, but the defense has been exceptionally bad throughout the entire four years. This was supposed to be the culmination year, with a team full of seniors developed by the program, and 8-4 with no wins over teams with winning records is the end result. Advanced stats are not much better, with the Bruins finishing the regular season with an SP+ ranking of 40th in the country; the Bruins possess a top 15 offense (14th) but a defense that comes in at a terrible 75th.
I really want to stress again how mediocre UCLA’s schedule has been, which allowed them to get that 8-4 record. All four of the teams that UCLA lost to happen to be ranked ahead of them in SP+, with the lowest being Fresno State at 37th. The highest-ranking of a team UCLA beat belongs to LSU, which ended up at 61st. Three of UCLA’s victories came over teams ranked in the 100s (Colorado, Stanford, and Arizona). The Pac-12 has not been a good conference this season, or really most seasons over the past decade, which makes it all the more problematic that Chip Kelly can’t get the Bruins over the hump against even the halfway decent opponents on their schedule. The story on the 2021 UCLA Bruins is not one of a good team, but of one that took advantage of an easy schedule.
Let’s look at the future. Let’s look at Jim Harbaugh.
In the last Eye Test, I guessed that the likeliest course of action would be UCLA offering Chip Kelly a Harbaugh extension following this season. To quote myself on what a Harbaugh extension is:
A Harbaugh extension is based on the one Jim Harbaugh got at Michigan last year, which gave him an extension but made the buyout a negligible amount. It also required Harbaugh to make major changes to his coaching staff…
For Michigan, the Harbaugh extension does appear to have worked out. Harbaugh was finally able to knock off Ohio State this past weekend, and in the process has Michigan on the doorstep of their first College Football Playoff appearance. The Harbaugh extension can work, but I neglected to explain specifically why it worked in Michigan, and why it is unlikely to work well at UCLA (or Nebraska, which offered one to Scott Frost a few weeks ago).
See, the Harbaugh extension is predicated on the idea that the program is, for the most part, doing well, and just needs to fix one major aspect. For Michigan, that was coaching - specifically, tactical issues in the defense and offense. Results weren’t necessarily a problem for Michigan under Harbaugh; prior to the extension, Harbaugh had led the Wolverines to a top 10 finish in SP+ in four of the previous six seasons (and, as a spoiler, Michigan will likely end up with a top 5 finish this season). They had won a share of the Big Ten East division, one of the toughest divisions in the sport considering it also features Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State. And their recruiting was solid - according to 247Sports, only one full recruiting cycle under Harbaugh ended up ranked outside the top 20, and he has three top 10 classes while at Ann Arbor. Thus, Harbaugh brought in a whole new defensive coaching staff while mixing some things up on the offensive side, and the results speak for themselves.
Translating this over to UCLA, the Bruins have two major problems that need to be corrected. For one, the defense remains abysmal, and nothing short of a complete house-cleaning should be in order here. But in addition, the level of talent UCLA has is not close to where it needs to be in order for it to be competitive in a weak conference, let alone on the national level.
Starting with the coaching issue, this is fixable with a caveat. As Harbaugh showed, getting new voices involved can effect change for the better, but you have to actually make a good hire. In Harbaugh’s case, that meant getting a few quality young coaches from his brother John’s staff in Baltimore while bringing in a few former Wolverines that can sell the program. The question becomes whether Chip Kelly recognizes that the problem is systemic and needs wholesale changes and whether he is capable of making the required changes. There is certainly reason to doubt whether Chip Kelly recognizes that a problem exists - his postgame comments have routinely downplayed the significance of the problems on defense, and he kept Jerry Azzinaro as his defensive coordinator despite the results he has provided. And should Martin Jarmond require a new defensive coordinator as part of any extension, are we certain Kelly will make a good choice? He has had much more success on the offensive side of the ball, which makes sense given his background, but the defensive side of the ball has eluded him. I will even remind everyone that Kelly’s defensive coordinator at Oregon, former UCLA DC Nick Aliotti, was a holdover from the Mike Bellotti era that Kelly was required to keep around, much to his benefit.
The recruiting issues may be harder to fix with Kelly at the wheel. Recruiting has not been great under Chip Kelly; following a 2018 recruiting class that had largely been recruited by Jim Mora and finished ranked 19th according to 247Sports, UCLA has had classes ranked 40th, 33rd, and 31st, with the upcoming 2022 class currently sitting at 37th. The 2022 class may end up being the best that Kelly has brought in, which is damning with faint praise - there are currently five 4-star recruits committed to UCLA this cycle, which is three less than UCLA got in the previous three cycles combined. Even considering how poor Southern Cal was under Clay Helton, they were able to bring in 14 4-star recruits in 2021 alone.
UCLA has failed to bring in high-end talent under Chip Kelly, in part due to a strategy where Kelly believed he could bring in under-recruited talent, develop them better than anyone else, and then simply outcoach opposing teams. 2021 should have put an end to the notion that this was a winning strategy; Arizona State and Oregon were able to beat UCLA because they were better at acquiring high-end talent, Utah beat UCLA because it is much better at developing the talent they bring in, and Fresno State simply out-coached the Bruins. If anything, 2021 has shown that UCLA can beat teams that they either have a clear coaching (LSU, Southern Cal, Washington) or talent (every other win) advantage over; if things are closer, UCLA under Chip Kelly struggles.
Even the transfer portal, which has been cited by some as a system better suited for Kelly, is a double-edged sword that is best used as a complement for a strong talent acquisition operation. The Bruins have benefitted from the portal with players like Zach Charbonnet and Qwuantrezz Knight, but that has only served to highlight all of the development failures this staff has had. Just for fun, I went and looked back at the 2019 recruiting class, and after three years, this class produced two starters (Sean Rhyan and Duke Clemens) and three consistent rotation pieces (Datona Jackson, Carl Jones, and Michael Martinez) out of a signing class of 21. That’s not good! That’s the group that should be making an impact now, but instead is barely contributing (and not to belabor the point, but the 2020 class is not much better).
Getting new coaches will only solve this problem by so much because the recruiting issues are a systemic problem that begins at the top. Chip Kelly does not like recruiting; this was reported back when he was at Oregon and was cited as one of the main reasons the NFL appealed to him. The recruiting strategy utilized at UCLA was seemingly designed with this aspect in mind. To fix this problem would require Chip Kelly to admit that he was severely wrong in his approach to creating a winning program. Is that possible? Maybe, but it feels like a tall ask.
This all gets to the problem that now faces athletic director Martin Jarmond: has Chip Kelly done enough to warrant keeping his job?
And maybe the bigger question: will UCLA be serious about football while he is the athletic director?
I will admit that I am maybe being a bit biased in this assessment, on account of having to pour over this program with a fine-tooth comb for the better part of seven years, but it is hard for me to see Chip Kelly as the best coach for the program going forward. Again, I can’t deny the offensive prowess he brings, but it isn’t so exceptional that it should protect him. The overall trajectory of the program goes well beyond the record UCLA was able to run up against mediocre competition this year, and it’s not one I’m fairly confident can compete for a conference championship without major changes in philosophy.
But even if Jarmond does decide to keep Chip Kelly, he can still show seriousness about football by setting meaningful parameters around Kelly’s continued employment. He can go out and spend the money required to bring in an impact defensive coordinator, improve the recruiting prowess of the coaching staff, and spend the money to beef up the program’s ability to recruit. He has to get Kelly to understand how to be a winning college football coach in 2021, including how to have a positive relationship with the local media that is consistently around the program. And he has to get Kelly to stop experimenting with the program and coach as if his career depended on it.
Considering what would be required to fix Kelly’s program, it may make more financial sense to cut bait now instead of trying to band-aid fix things, but the ultimate point still stands:
Is UCLA ready to take modern college football seriously?