Despite success, Bruins have ways to go

Brett Hundley may be an emerging star, but the Holiday Bowl showed how far the Bruins have to go. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

SAN DIEGO -- Bigger, stronger and faster is what every football team strives to be.

It's what UCLA became this season compared with Bruins teams of the recent past, but a stumble to the finish line showed that they aren't quite big enough, strong enough or fast enough to play at an elite level just yet.

A 49-26 loss to Baylor on Thursday night in the Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium sent UCLA to its third consecutive loss to cap a season of resurgence. The streak -- losses to Stanford in the regular-season finale and the Pac-12 championship game followed by the Holiday blowout -- showed that UCLA's rebuilding project is far from complete.

"We've got a long ways to go," coach Jim Mora acknowledged. "But we're on the right path. … The team that we want to be is a national champion and tonight showed us just how far we have to go, but we're determined to get there. We're heading in the right direction, but we're a long ways off."

Much of the talk around UCLA this season focused on how far the Bruins had come in the first year under Mora. They put up an impressive early victory over Nebraska, came from behind in the final minutes to win on the road at Arizona State and ended a five-game losing streak to cross-town rival USC.

But Stanford showed two weeks in a row that UCLA was not strong enough, and Baylor on Thursday showed that the Bruins are not yet fast enough.

"There are still a lot of little things that need to get done," safety Andrew Abbott said. "UCLA is right there. We broke through so many things this year and now we just need to break through the top. I know coach Mora will get the players there."

Experience should help. What needs to be remembered about this UCLA team is that few projected it to be in this position in the first place. Eight wins was thought to be the ceiling for the team, so getting to nine has to be considered a success.

Still, with each victory the pressure mounted as the stakes grew higher. UCLA hadn't been in a position to win high-stakes games for a while, certainly not with the current team, so the last three games should serve as a learning experience heading into next season.

"We have to finish stronger," junior receiver Shaq Evans said. "I think it's experience. I think the moment got too big for a lot of people because this is their first year playing and we have to learn how to finish."

The offseason will be littered with questions about just how far UCLA has come. Is this a top-10 team for next year with an emerging star, in Brett Hundley, leading the offense at quarterback? Or is this a one-hit wonder that benefited from an easy schedule and will be brought back to reality next season?

Certainly, UCLA took advantage of the easier schedule and seven home games this season, but what better way to bring along a team that was starting seven freshmen on offense at times. Next year, those players will be battle-tested as they take on a more difficult schedule that includes Oregon and Washington.

And knowing that the season ended with three consecutive losses will stick in the minds of the returning players, who vowed to use the losing streak as fuel to get better before next season.

"We're going to take these losses and really apply it to our offseason workouts," linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "I'm going to remember them when I'm training."

It is a bitter end to what had been a sweet season, but the Bruins will still almost certainly begin next season in the top 25 and with hopes that they can get the program to an elite level. It's something that many would have put in the category of foolish pipe dream before this season, but nobody will be shaking their heads at the notion now.

For that, these Bruins can hold their heads high despite the disappointing finish to the season.

"I don't think it takes away anything from what we accomplished this season," Evans said. "The accomplishments of the season can never be taken away from one loss or the last three games."