Last summer, I ranked my eight favorite college football games I worked in my career. A game just three days after that ranking, published Aug. 31, 2017, rendered it moot.
And thus, the tone for the 2017 season was set.
Last autumn’s campaign measures up with any of the most chaotic of any in my time following college football. The wild finishes, the torrid comebacks, the historic individual performances all combined for an unforgettable season. I had the good fortune of sitting up close for a few of the fall’s very best, starting right from opening weekend.
The second leg of a Labor Day weekend doubleheader sent me to the most venerable location in the sport, Rose Bowl Stadium, for a rare SEC vs. Pac-12 showdown pitting Texas A&M against UCLA.
Now, I believe in objectivity in journalism. The only things I root for, typically, are an entertaining games that organically grow interesting stories. However, in this instance, I wanted to be spared the tiresome bleat of SEC honks who are college football’s worst energy vampires. That meant UCLA could not get blown out on its home turf.
And for 30 minutes, that’s exactly what happened.
Texas A&M imposed its will with that…what do they call it? Ah, yes: SEC speed.
Trayveon Williams blurred past Bruins to the tune of 203 yards with two touchdowns. That “big boy football” gimmick was also evident with the Aggies front line opening gaping holes for both Williams and Keith Ford to power on through. UCLA’s inability to complete passes and turnover issues resulted in six consecutive possessions that resulted in three plays or fewer. Put simply, the first half was the most thorough ass-kicking I ever witnessed firsthand.
Talk ahead of the season placed head coach Jim Mora squarely on the hot seat, with popular opinion dictating that failure to improve dramatically on the previous campaign’s 4-8 finish would result in his pink slip come Thanksgiving. The silence with each three-and-out and another Aggies score during that first half was deafening in its signaling a perhaps premature end to the Mora era.
An uncomfortable squirming was shared among some even in the press box. But what changed in the second half for UCLA was that the shock evident in the stands and press box wasn’t felt among the blue-and-gold.
“There were no Debbie Downers on the sidelines,” Mora said afterward.
The role reversal as UCLA’s defense began stringing together stops and Josh Rosen started connecting with his receivers was staggering. The Bruins of the first half appeared hapless; in the second, UCLA could do no wrong, scoring on a few passes that were quite literally inches from resulting in disaster for the comeback effort.
“Josh Rosen threw up some balls that we should have had and didn’t get that resulted in touchdowns,” Kevin Sumlin said.
Rosen himself admitted as much, noting in particular a 42-yard bomb to Darren Andrews that crept a fingertip over an Aggie defender’s hand.
Though Texas A&M won eight games in each of the previous five seasons, a feat not accomplished at Texas A&M since legendary R.C. Slocum hit eight wins or more from 1989 through 1995, Kevin Sumlin occupied a hot seat similar to Mora’s. By the time the Bruins completed the rally, the lingering question if Mora would even make it to conference play now applied to Sumlin. By that point, I believe it was a foregone conclusion that Chip Kelly would be coaching one of those teams come 2018 — just not the team that he’s actually coaching.
Overseeing the biggest rally in college football history was not enough to save Jim Mora. The issues that led to UCLA trailing Texas A&M 44-10 remained throughout the season, to the point the Bruins had the worst power-conference rushing defense in 15 years.
Coincidentally, the 2006 Michigan State team UCLA matched for the greatest comeback ever — which also won scoring 35 unanswered — parted ways with its head coach, John L. Smith, at that season’s conclusion.
I have seen UCLA’s wild comeback dismissed as inconsequential in the months that followed as a result of the two head coaches’ fates, and the teams’ combined 13-13 final record. However, if the promising Nick Starkel doesn’t injure his foot…if Texas A&M continues its blowout…if UCLA’s season unravels early…
In the same fashion that UCLA rallied with various near-misses, the entire direction of a program can hinge on a few seemingly inconsequential moments.