It’s the kind of discussion that has to be conducted in a responsible way in order for a college football season to provide a fair outcome on Dec. 7, 2014, the day the four-team College Football Playoff is announced.
It’s the kind of discussion that can’t give way to hyperbole or, on the other end of the spectrum, indifference.
It’s the kind of discussion that can’t be boxed in. It can’t receive an easy answer or a premature generalization.
UCLA’s blowout of Arizona State late Thursday night in Tempe, Ariz., was important within the local and immediate context of the Pac-12 South Division race, but its greater importance was rooted in its measurement of UCLA’s overall quality. The Bruins received quite a lot of offseason publicity as a potential playoff team, and this victory — given its emphatic, authoritative nature — will surely crank up the hype machine in many college football circles.
Brett Hundley didn’t look like a quarterback who was a game-time decision by head coach Jim Mora. He was nearly flawless on Thursday. He didn’t throw many incompletions, and a number of them were drops by his receivers.
UCLA’s defensive backs, kick returners, and receivers, such as double-threat Ishmael Adams, receiver Jordan Payton, and receiver Eldridge Massington, helped UCLA unfurl four different scoring plays of at least 80 yards. It’s not as though UCLA didn’t move the ball on a regular basis — the Bruins kept pace with Arizona State in total yardage. Four scoring plays of 80 yards or more (plus another 81-yard run which didn’t score a touchdown) created a jarring yet undeniable reality: UCLA gained roughly 360 yards on four plays. Four. Add that other non-scoring 81-yard run? The Bruins collected roughly 440 yards on five plays.
Not all of those yards were scrimmage yards, but the numbers are still a bit startling for a team whose offense was thoroughly shut down by Virginia and consistently contained by Texas. UCLA certainly answered questions about its lack of explosiveness and the ability to land knockout punches in different phases of competition. The Bruins did this on the road, at night, against the defending Pac-12 South champions. On certain levels, this was a great win for UCLA, no matter what the other details of this contest suggested.
Yes, Arizona State had lost almost all of its defense from 2013, but UCLA still had to respond to a 17-6 deficit against a Sun Devil offense that wound up gaining over 600 yards and nearly 40 first downs with a backup quarterback, Mike Bercovici. It’s easy to say that UCLA had this game all the way, but when the Bruins were trailing by 11 and looked relatively flat in the early stages of the second quarter, they needed a moment to jolt them alive, as so many college teams do when — being college kids — they don’t start a game exactly as their coaches wanted them to.
The magic moment UCLA found was not the lightning bolt provided by Adams on his 95-yard pick-six just before halftime, which gave UCLA a 27-17 lead at the intermission as part of a 10-point swing. The first, and therefore more important, moment of consequence on Thursday came a little earlier, when UCLA was still sitting on six points.
The moment this game turned from a Mike Bercovici breakout to a UCLA tsunami came with the Bruins trailing 17-6 and facing a third and two at their own 20, two minutes into the second quarter. The Sun Devil Stadium crowd was roaring, Arizona State’s backup quarterback was balling — much better than Hundley to that point in time — and UCLA had every reason to think that it was in big trouble.
Hundley threw a very short pass to the aforementioned Eldridge Massington near the right sideline. Massington cut inside, where two Arizona State defenders sized him up… and in the next instant, wound up bouncing off each other instead of wrapping up Massington with a form tackle. The Sun Devils went for the showy high-impact hit instead of making the sound and simple play. Massington, given an upfield push of momentum while also receiving the benefit of an out-of-position defense, raced to the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown. In an instant, a flagging UCLA team was given a dose of scoreboard adrenaline; relief from the negative events that had marked the first quarter; and a plot twist which changed the energy on the Arizona State sideline, not to mention the stadium itself.
Sometimes, a normal touchdown drive doesn’t do anything to alter a game’s larger emotional equation. It often takes a weird or wild play, something which sticks in the mind’s eye for both the successful team and the failing team, to suck the air out of one balloon and transfer that competitive oxygen into another. UCLA consolidated its forward momentum with Adams’s undeniably huge pick-six in the final 10 seconds of the first half. However, it was the 80-yard pass to Massington which enabled the Bruins to get off the deck… and deck the Sun Devils over the final three quarters.
Now, though, comes the debate referred to at the beginning of this piece. It’s a debate which can’t be answered or decided in the present moment. We’re just going to have to wait to learn just how much this night meant on a national level.
It could very well be that UCLA has arrived, that the Bruins have become a team worthy of the College Football Playoff.
It could be that UCLA survived the first few scratchy and ragged weeks of the season before flexing its muscles and turning on its afterburners against Arizona State, using this game as a springboard to a breakout season.
It could be that the Bruins have figured everything out. It could be that such a statement will turn out to be true in the fullness of time.
Could be and is, though, are two different things. One is a possibility. The other is a confirmed reality.
There is a separate line of “could-be” statements one could just as easily apply to Bruins-Sun Devils:
It could be that Arizona State is simply an awful defensive team.
It could be that Arizona State’s flood of huge mistakes gave UCLA the assist it needed on Thursday.
It could be that if future opponents don’t give away gobs of yards and points with basic breakdowns in concentration, communication and technique, UCLA could still be exposed.
The point here is not to suggest that UCLA fits into the first or second category, that the Bruins are in fact for real or that they are overrated. Neither statement is being hinted at.
The point is simply that WE DON’T KNOW YET.
This is the eternal challenge of a college football season: We all get to have our opinions, suspicions and inclinations in September and October, but we don’t earn the right to make full assessments of teams until their bodies of work — and the profiles of their opponents — come into focus in late November and early December.
It’s sexy to want to proclaim UCLA as a fully-made team, and it might also feel good from a contrarian’s perspective to say that the Bruins are a fraud waiting to be exposed.
Neither verdict, though, is warranted… because both verdicts are premature. It’s not fun or exciting, but in college football, opinion makers and opinion shapers have to learn to withhold definitive judgments until the final few weeks of the season, preferably not until the final relevant games have been played on the first weekend of December.
UCLA scored an important win on many levels. How important is this triumph over Arizona State, though?
Only time will tell. College football demands our patience… even if the sport so good at relentlessly testing it.