Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ten Years Too Late

In a little over a week, the UCLA Bruins will take on the Tennessee Volunteers in front of a nationally televised audience. In 1998, the Bruins were hoping for the same scenario. Back then, an undefeated UCLA squad had a clear shot at playing Tennessee in the first ever BCS championship game. Unfortunately, a hurricane and a phantom fumble call ended that date with destiny before it could even be penciled in. It's been a decade since these two teams were supposed to play each other, and it has been a bumpy ride for both schools, to say the least.

It was a sunny December morning at the Orange Bowl and the Bruins were in town to play a makeup game against the Miami Hurricanes. Earlier in the year, hurricane George caused the game to be canceled but UCLA opted to have the game replayed later in the season. Going into that weekend, there were three undefeated teams including UCLA, Tennessee, and Kansas State. If the Bruins could take care of business that day then they would have a legitimate claim to appear in the Fiesta Bowl and play for the national title. As fate would have it, the Wildcats would lose to an underdog Texas A&M team that Saturday, leaving the door open for a Tennessee and UCLA title showdown.

Of course, things wouldn't work out for the Bruins either. That team was all offense and no defense and the Hurricanes racked up a ridiculous 689 yards by the time it was over. Cade McNown and Brian Poli-Dixon feuled UCLA's top-rated offense to 43 points but a bogus fumble call in the fourth quarter, with UCLA rolling down the field for another score, would lead to the final Miami touchdown.

UCLA has practically vanished off the national stage since that fateful game against Miami ten years ago. After having a nation's best 20-game win streak, the Bruins haven't come close to matching their success from that season. No conference championships and more 6-6 recods than you can shake a stick at. UCLA hasn't been to a BCS bowl game in nine seasons and the rise of USC across town and the emergence of California and Arizona State as national players haven't helped the Bruins claw their way back either.

Things haven't been all the great for Tennessee as well. The Volunteers of the late 90's were a powerhouse program. They only lost five games from 1995 - 1998. Along the way they picked up some hardware including three bowl victories, two SEC championships, and that first ever BCS National Championship. It's been all downhill since then. They've won their division a few times, but no conference championship and not even a sniff at a national championship game. They even had a losing season in 2005.

The good news for both schools is that the future looks brighter than the past. The Bruins are on their second new coach since 1998, and Rick Neuhiesel has the charisma, passion, and coaching staff to return the Bruins to the top of the PAC-10. Tennessee, behind long time coach Phil Furmer, posted a 10-win mark last year and a return visit to the SEC championship game. Good things are expected in Knoxville this season and the Orange clad fans are eager to a return to their glory days as well.

Finally the Bruins and Volunteers will have their date with destiny. It comes ten years too late for the UCLA faithful, but maybe some football demons can be exorcised during this game. I think ten years in purgatory is payment enough for whatever offense we committed against the football gods so long ago. It may not be a victory for the Bruins, but it just might be the first step on the long road back up the mountain.

Other Fun Facts:
  • UCLA and Tennessee have played 13 times in their history. The Bruins are 4-7-2 against the Volunteers.
  • After San Diego State (21) and Pittsburgh (14,) UCLA has played Tennessee more times than any other active, non-conference foe.
  • The last time these two teams played, in 1997,Tennesse won. The Bruins then went on a 20 game winning streak.
  • The 11 year gap from the last time these two teams played is the longest break since the series began in 1965. Before then, the teams averaged a game every 3 years.
  • Tennessee has a lifetime 14-11-3 record against the PAC-10.
(photo credit: Sports Illustrated)

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