Alright, so language like "the best 1-5 team in college football" has an undeniable back-handed compliment quality to it. But despite starting the Chip Kelly era with the worst record of any UCLA team dating back to 1943, significant improvement in key areas is evident through the first half of the Bruins' 2018 schedule.
Five weeks of strides finally culminated in a breakthrough on Oct. 13, when UCLA trounced Cal, 37-7. The effectiveness of the rushing attack and stinginess of the defense both mark dramatic departures from the most damning failings of the previous three seasons.
The cornerstones of UCLA's future direction are in place, but the Bruins face a back-half of the schedule as brutal as the first six games. A bowl game seems unrealistic — but not as implausible as the suggestion might have felt just a few weeks ago.
Offensive MVP: RB Joshua Kelley
A former walk-on and UC Davis transfer, Kelley may be the single-most surprising revelation of the 2018 Pac-12 season. Kelley's breathed life into a UCLA run game that, in 2016 and '17, was among the absolute worst in college football.
He has 433 rushing yards at the midway point — not quite a 1,000-yard pace, but Kelley should have no trouble becoming UCLA's first 1,000-yard rusher since Paul Perkins in 2015. That's because Kelley, who saw sparse touches against Oklahoma and Fresno State, broke out from the pack of potentially No. 1 ball carriers over the last three games. His outbursts of 124, 125 and 157 yards mark the first stretch in which a Bruin has hit the century mark three consecutive times since Johnathan Franklin in Weeks 1-3 of 2012.
Defensive MVP: S Adarius Pickett
Pickett has lived up to his status as the veteran leader of a young defense. His 70 tackles pace the Bruins, and he has four games with at least 12. That includes a whopping 16 against Washington. Pickett also intercepted Jake Browning in the same game.
Best Moment of the First Half: Keisean Lucier-South vs. Cal
One of the big questions facing UCLA heading into 2018 was how, after a historically dismal season on defense, the Bruins would regroup with considerable turnover in the starting lineup. UCLA's had to replace outstanding pass rushers and run-stoppers almost every year for the better part of the last decade, but the process of finding another Takkarist McKinley looked like a daunting one.
If Lucier-South's performance at Cal is any indicator, he's ready to take up that mantle.
Lucier-South earned the Football Writers Association of America's Bronko Nagurski Defensive Player of the Week after recording a career-high 3.5 tackles for a loss, an interception, a forced fumble, and a scoop-and-score.
Best Newcomer: QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson
Joshua Kelley may be the Bruins' offensive MVP, biggest surprise, and leading newcomer, but it's only right to spotlight Thompson-Robinson here. Besides, DTR is a newcomer in every sense of the word; Kelley was a redshirt in 2017./p>
Thompson-Robinson stepped into the lineup Week 1 when Michigan transfer Wilton Speight re-aggravated a lingering back injury. His first couple of outings were rough, which came to a head after the Sept. 15 loss to Fresno State. Thompson-Robinson's father criticized Kelly as "a millionaire who [bears] no responsibility" for the Bruins' woes. Following another rough outing at Colorado, Thompson-Robinson settled in with a pair of great performances against Washington and Cal, completing 71.1 and 86.7 percent of his pass attempts.
Thompson-Robinson's performance may not land him on the Freshman All-America team, but his rapid progress foreshadows big things to come.
Biggest Surprise: S Quentin Lake
The son of former UCLA great Carnell Lake, Quentin arrived in Westwood with plenty of buzz. He played sparingly in 2017, and came into '18 part of a secondary loaded with veterans — the only unit with such distinction.
Lake has managed to factor into a rotation with returning starters Adarius Pickett and Darnay Holmes, recording 40 tackles.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. DTR's continued progress
Not all young quarterbacks would have handled a rocky start quite as deftly as Dorian Thompson-Robinson. After three-and-a-half rough performances, however, the true freshman played a pair of outstanding games, including against one of the nation's premier defenses.
The Washington game could be the moment we look back on at the end of an illustrious college career as its beginning. Thompson-Robinson's demonstrated an ability to read the field, deliver the ball both on short and deep routes, and extend plays under pressure. He should only get better as the season progresses.
2. A defensive identity forged
Chip Kelly's reputation long hinged on his offensive creativity, and the implementation of a hurry-up offense that took a burgeoning concept to unprecedented levels. After four seasons in the NFL, Kelly returned to the college game with a different offensive approach. And, indeed, UCLA is still solidifying its identity on that side of the ball.
The most noticeable change for the Bruins this season compared to the previous few is how much more aggressive and disciplined they've been on defense. Jerry Azzinaro has been better at finishing tackles than recent UCLA teams, and the D has steadily had playmakers emerge like Keisean Lucier-South. With so much youth on that side of the ball, the final stretch of this season will be key in forging the identity of the Bruins' defense for 2019.
3. Building a springboard to 2019
It's not just the UCLA defense setting the foundation for next year in this upcoming second half of the 2018 campaign. The entire program's future course takes important, initial steps in the coming weeks, as the Bruins face a tough, but manageable stretch against Pac-12 competition.
A 5-1 finish to reach bowl eligibility is highly unlikely, but there's at least one contest in which UCLA is favored (Oct. 20 vs. Arizona), and potential for upsets across the board. The Bruins get four of their final six at home, including two against the favorites to win the South division, USC and Utah. A victory in either one gives the Pac-12 something to think about during the offseason.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 3 at Oregon
Chip Kelly returns to the program where he rose from relatively unknown FCS assistant, to coveted NFL coaching commodity. The greeting on the field probably won't be warm — not for his team, anyway. Mario Cristobal has Oregon playing some of the best football in the Pac-12, and on course for a North division title.
The Ducks' success has been predicated on a new-found physicality. Oregon's brand of smash-mouth football employs a power-run game, mixed with Justin Herbert's ability to distribute the ball around the field. UCLA's lack of depth in the front seven makes this one a tough matchup.
2. Nov. 24 Stanford
To describe the UCLA-Stanford series as one-sided in recent years would be an understatement. Not only have the Cardinal won 10 straight dating back to 2009 — including seven by two touchdowns or more — but some of UCLA's most heartbreaking losses of the decade have come in this series. Stanford held on to win the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game on a missed field goal, then two years later — with what was demonstrably the worst team of the David Shaw era — trampled UCLA in the Rose Bowl to deny it a spot in the league title tilt.
Shaw's 2012 team was also the one to solve the Chip Kelly puzzle, completely neutralizing the quick-strike offense in an overtime game that denied the Ducks a second BCS Championship Game appearance in three seasons.
4. Nov. 17 vs. USC
UCLA ran off three consecutive wins against USC from 2012-14, all by double-digit margins. In the three meetings since, USC has gained control of the Victory Bell. The Trojans may be playing for a third divisional championship in four years when they make the short jaunt to Pasadena for this year's installment, giving the Bruins an opportunity to play spoiler.
4. Oct. 26 Utah
Facing Utah's physically imposing style is difficult enough, but UCLA must do so on a six-day turnaround. If it's any consolation, the Utes also will come into this matchup just six days later, and after a potential body-blow game against USC.
5. Nov. 10 at Arizona State
The 2017 meeting between UCLA and Arizona State was an instant classic, featuring a defensive touchdown from cornerback Nate Meadors, explosive offensive plays, and the Bruins holding on for a win critical to their bowl aspirations.
Both sides have new head coaches in 2018, and are still somewhat feeling things out. The Sun Devils have been feisty on defense, but have yet to exhibit the same firepower offensively that was on display in last year's excellent game.
6. Oct. 20 Arizona
Khalil Tate ran wild in his first start of 2017 against UCLA, pacing Arizona to a 47-30 win that snapped UCLA's five-game streak in the series. The Bruins don't have to deal with Tate in 2018 — Kevin Sumlin announced the quarterback will sit to let a nagging ankle injury heal. For a second consecutive year, UCLA must contend with a first-time starter, most likely Rhett Rodriguez.
A repeat of last year seems unlikely, with UCLA featuring a much better defense and Arizona still trying to feel out its offensive strategy under Sumlin and former UCLA offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone.
(Top photo by Scott Chandler, courtesy of uclabruins.com)