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UCLA Bruins have clean slate in Pac-12

The first three games meant nothing.

Sure, they gave us a clue about how far the UCLA Bruins still have to go in order to escape their status as a second-class football program, but really they meant very little in the grand scheme of how this season will be judged.

Yes, Rick Neuheisel is on the hot seat this season because his record at UCLA is 16-24, but he's on the hot seat even more because his teams have yet to get anywhere near a conference title.

UCLA has finished eighth, eighth and ninth in the Pac-10 during Neuheisel's first three seasons, going 8-19 in conference games, meaning a strong showing this season is vital for helping him save face and, perhaps, his job.

So despite a lackluster 1-2 start, UCLA can still salvage the season with a strong showing in Pac-12 Conference play. Despite little reason for hope through the first quarter of the season, the Bruins can still come back.

That's why Saturday's Pac-12 opener at Oregon State marks a more pivotal event in UCLA's season than last week's marquee matchup against Texas or an uninspired victory over lowly San Jose State or the season opener against Houston.

"The preseason nonconference games didn't go obviously like we wanted them to, but we are 0-0 in the Pac-12 now and this is a clean slate and an opportunity for us to be right there at the top," quarterback Richard Brehaut said.

A win against Oregon State would mean a 1-0 start in the conference -- something that hasn't yet happened in the Neuheisel era. In fact, UCLA has not had a winning record in conference games at any point in any of Neuheisel's three seasons.

The Bruins were 3-6 in the Pac-10 in 2008, 3-6 in 2009 and 2-7 last season. In those three seasons, they didn't win game against a conference foe that finished in the top half of the standings, nor have they ever defeated a Pac-10 team that finished with more than five wins.

The combined overall record of the conference teams that UCLA has defeated during that stretch is 24-73, and four of UCLA's eight conference victories over the last three seasons came against teams that finished the season with double-digit losses.

"It's imperative that we get off on the right foot in conference play," Neuheisel said. "In order for us to be the team we think we can be, we have to have success in the conference. We can start moving in that direction by winning this game in a tough environment on the road."

Last week's game against Texas carried a little extra panache and certainly could have shifted the momentum of the season, but going into that game the specter of past conference failures loomed and the general consensus was that even a win against Texas would mean little if UCLA didn't back it up with a strong Pac-12 showing.

The Bruins have been there and done that with high-profile wins against ranked teams, but two victories over Tennessee and one over Texas in recent seasons meant little in terms of where UCLA was as a team. Likewise, last weekend's loss to Texas -- while disheartening because of the lopsided score -- says little about how things may go from here on out.

"Of course, we wanted to win that game. We want to win every game," defensive lineman Datone Jones said. "But we don't look at it like it was the end of the world. We know we still have a chance to turn around the season. Our No. 1 goal is to win the Pac-12 and that can still happen, and it starts with this game."

The beginning of conference play offers a welcome respite from the dreadful and stressful start that has surrounded the program in a cloud of doom and gloom. "Fresh start" and "clean slate" are the buzz words around UCLA football this week.

Opening on the road won't make getting off on the right foot any easier -- UCLA is 2-11 in road conference games since 2008 -- but the Bruins are looking at this game as an opportunity to change not only UCLA's fortunes in conference road games, but also the image of UCLA as a conference bottom-feeder.

"We want to make a statement that this is a new team and a new set of guys that is going to change the perception of UCLA football," Brehaut said. "What it has been the past few years is not good enough anymore."

Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.