The most exciting offense in college basketball runs through a five-star freshman point guard who could become the top overall pick in the draft. Lonzo Ball has reinvigorated UCLA, playing a central role in turning the storied program around from 15-17 last year to a 23-3 national championship contender this season. Ball has unlocked the potential the Bruins have often struggled to reach in recent years.
This is the same script that UCLA's football team had hoped to follow. Instead, the desired upward trajectory of the Bruins with Josh Rosen at quarterback turned into a disastrous 2016 season that creates substantial uncertainty for 2017, what is presumed to be Rosen's final year in college.
One year from now, it's likely that Rosen, who is entering his junior season, will be preparing for the NFL Draft, giving UCLA a small window of opportunity to finally capitalize on his presence under coach Jim Mora, whose future at the school may depend on what happens in the upcoming season. Rosen has been the starter since he arrived, but UCLA is 12-13 with him on the roster -- 11-8 with him starting at quarterback after he missed the final six games of 2016 with an injury.
So many preseason top-25 teams had disappointing seasons that it became easy for UCLA's sudden football decline to get overshadowed. Michigan State went from the playoff to 3-9. Notre Dame went from the Fiesta Bowl to 4-8. Ole Miss went from the Sugar Bowl to 5-7. Oregon went from year after year of success to 4-8. UCLA has not been to a major bowl game since 1998, and, thus, its descent from No. 16 in the preseason AP poll to 4-8 got lost in the shuffle. After all, 4-8 is a familiar number in Westwood: The 2008 and 2010 Bruins did it, too.
Mora was hired to replace Rick Neuheisel two seasons after that 2010 four-win campaign, and under his leadership, the Bruins showed flashes of being able to live up to the potential the program has as a massive, prestigious university that's one of only two Power Five teams in talent-rich southern California and has had some historical success. UCLA went 10-3 in both 2013 and '14 with Brett Hundley at quarterback, the program's first back-to-back ranked finishes since 1997-98. Only once in the 14 seasons in between did the Bruins manage a top-25 season.
The solid results were supposed to turn into another step forward thanks to the arrival of Rosen, a five-star recruit and the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the class of 2015. Rosen was immediately labeled a potential top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft because of his polished skill set. Year 1 showed promise but expected ups and downs with some issues defensively and major issues with injuries. The Bruins went 8-5 after climbing as high as No. 7, and they slipped outside the top 25, while Rosen completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards, 23 TDs and 11 INTs, placing him 55th nationally in passer rating. He had forgettable moments, but as a true freshman starting for a Pac-12 team, he looked like a future star.
Then the bottom fell out, though it was not Rosen's fault.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone left for Texas A&M, and Mora decided to build a what was supposed to be a more physical attack through promoted running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, with Marques Tuiasosopo aboard to coach quarterbacks. The Bruins needed to replace prolific running back Paul Perkins, three offensive line starters and three of their top four receivers. While a healthier defense made huge strides and finished 15th in yards per play allowed, the inability of the offense to protect Rosen and open running lanes handcuffed the entire season and made the scheme switch a disaster.
In his first -- and likely only -- year on campus, Ball has made UCLA basketball into the most explosive and entertaining team in the country under coach Steve Alford. The football team, meanwhile, became unwatchable in Rosen's second season, even before he got hurt.
Thrust into a new system with high hopes, Rosen was mercilessly hit by opposing defenses that didn't have to worry about getting beat by the Bruins' running game. Rosen was a sitting duck, and the two sacks UCLA gave up per game did not tell the whole story. The Bruins finished 127th in rushing, averaging 2.9 yards per carry and 84.3 yards per game. They cracked 100 rushing yards as a team in only three of 12 games, and Rosen's final game -- a 23-20 loss to Arizona State, which had a porous defense -- featured -1 rushing yard for the team.
Rosen was ruled out for the season on Nov. 4 and underwent shoulder surgery on his throwing arm. Mora said afterward that there was no nerve damage. In six games, Rosen threw for 1,915 yards, 10 TDs and five INTs, essentially continuing his level of production from his freshman season … just with almost no help and the shoulder problem. The three losses with Rosen were all down-to-the-wire games, and the Bruins proceeded to collapse without him, losing five of six after he was sidelined.
Not surprisingly, Polamalu was fired after just one season, as was offensive line coach Adrian Klemm. Tuiasosopo left for Cal, and receivers coach Eric Yarber left for the Los Angeles Rams. That means nearly a complete overhaul of the offensive staff under new coordinator Jedd Fisch, who spent the past two years as the passing game coordinator under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.
Fisch's job isn't to save Rosen, a highly skilled and smart passer whose top priority is his health. His job is to save the offense that Rosen is in, putting the prized junior passer in better position to succeed after last year's debacle in which Rosen was set up to fail before getting hurt. It'll be Rosen's third system in three years, but the Bruins should have a more seasoned line -- beyond losing the best of the group, tackle Conor McDermott -- and can't possibly be worse running the ball after their leading rusher, ex-five-star recruit Soso Jamabo, had only 321 yards. After last year's failure to meld personnel to scheme, Fisch has to devise a plan that does what last year's offense couldn't do: maximize strengths and work around weaknesses to allow Rosen to tap into his enormous upside.
The prospect of an available Chip Kelly will haunt every hot-seat coach this fall, and that's especially true for Mora, who is 41-24 in five seasons but now faces increased pressure with rival USC suddenly on the rise and possessing a star quarterback of its own in Sam Darnold. There was a window for success when USC was down, but the Bruins still haven't won a conference title since 1998, when quarterback Cade McNown led them to the Rose Bowl and went on to be a first-round pick.
Now, USC is back in the national picture, and UCLA faces a brutal schedule that includes Texas A&M and a tricky road trip to Memphis in nonconference play, the annual rivalry game with the Trojans and cross-division games against Washington, Oregon and Stanford, making Rosen's development into one of the biggest questions of the college football season. The Bruins aren't going to be favored to win the Pac-12, or even the Pac-12 South. They will, however, be under intense pressure to shed their underachiever label. Stellar recruiting and a hopefully healthy Rosen mean that Mora, after last year's botched offensive changes, won't have excuses to not show that 2016 was a fluke.
It was easier for Ball -- and fellow freshman T.J. Leaf -- to transform UCLA's basketball team. Quarterback is the most important position in sports, but Rosen couldn't save UCLA football by himself. Still, not capitalizing on the presence of Rosen for three years would be judged as a significant failure for the Mora regime. In 2017, Rosen should be aided by another solid defense, which signed No. 1 overall recruit Jaelan Phillips, but he needs some semblance of a running game and improvement in the receiving corps to be able to propel the Bruins forward.
By bringing in Fisch, UCLA football isn't going to resemble UCLA basketball. That's not Mora's desired style. But Ball and Rosen were the same type of recruits, the all-world instant-impact centerpieces coveted by the professional leagues.
It appears that UCLA basketball will take full advantage of its brief marriage with Ball in one year. Now, the pressure will be on UCLA football to do the same with the one guaranteed year it has left with Rosen.