UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel was asked at Pac-12 media day how he and the Bruins could restore sagging confidence in the program this season and get fans to return to the Rose Bowl. His answer was surprisingly straight-forward.
"Beat Houston," he said of the Bruins opening game.
"Because we play the next week against San Jose State. So if we can go on the road and beat Houston and do so in an impressive way, look like we're a well-coached, sound, fundamental football team, I think they'll come out the next week and be excited. If we can find a way to win that one, the next one's against Texas. It can happen that fast. It doesn't take long to win back your constituency. They just want to know there is reason for your optimism. So, we just got to come out of the gate ready to play."
The solution: A fast start, starting with a road trip to Houston.
Of course, the Bruins blew Houston out 31-13 last season. Sure, the Cougars lost quarterback Case Keenum in the second quarter, but UCLA led 21-3 at that point and was dominating the action. So the Bruins have, and probably should, beat Houston on Saturday, though playing on the road is never easy.
Further, one of the oddities during Neuheisel's three years back in Westwood, where he won a Rose Bowl as the Bruins quarterback, is the program's infuriating fits and starts. Just when one is ready to write them off and throw a handful of dirt on the Neuheisel tenure, a run of success appears. And just when folks want to theorize about a turned corner, Neuheisel and the Bruins go rear-end-over-tea-kettle.
Recall Neuheisel's debut: A thrilling home victory over Tennessee. What happened next? A 59-zip humiliation at BYU became the first of three consecutive losses.
In 2009, UCLA started 3-0. Then it lost five in a row. Then it won three of four to become bowl eligible and won a bowl game, albeit over Temple in the EagleBank Bowl.
And last fall, after an 0-2 start that included a humiliating 35-0 home loss to Stanford, the Bruins not only beat Houston, they then won at Texas and extended their winning streak to three games with a comeback victory against Washington State. A turnaround, perhaps? Nope. They lost six of seven to finish 4-8 for a second time under Neuheisel.
So what's the larger meaning of the opener at Houston when Neuheisel sits atop many lists of coaches on the hot seat?
"It's an important game for us," Neuheisel said. "Will it make or break our season? Absolutely not. But it will help get us on the right track believing things are going our way."
What UCLA needs to rekindle fan support is consistency -- a feeling that the Bruins are playing up to their potential on a regular basis. While this doesn't look like a 10-win team, it certainly has the talent to earn bowl eligibility, maybe even work its way into the South Division race.
If you look over the depth chart, there is a decided sense of "maybe."
Start with the Bruins leaving preseason camp a mostly healthy team for the first time under Neuheisel. Then there's a defense that looks sneaky good on all three levels (a healthy Datone Jones at end and Patrick Larimore at MLB could prove transformative for a unit that couldn't stop the run last fall). On offense, the Bruins have a solid offensive line, particularly when Jeff Baca returns this month, and plenty of speed and depth at the skill positions.
As for the hot seat talk, Neuheisel said it hasn't been a distraction.
"If you are asking if I am feeling it from outside, the answer is 'no,'" he said.
While Houston won't provide a definitive answer on Saturday, it is fair to say this. Neuheisel will take a step toward saving his job with a victory. And he'll go the opposite way with a defeat.