The College Football Playoff dream died with the stumble against Arizona. Returning to the Rose Bowl game for the first time since 1999 was out after the heartbreaker against USC.
Back-to-back losses have left UCLA to ponder something a lot less fun than a path to the Pac-12 championship game.
Now it’s all about which mid-tier bowl game the Bruins might find themselves in next month.
First, a quick primer on Pac-12 bowl selections. If the Pac-12 champion makes the CFP, the Rose Bowl picks a replacement team (presumably the one with the next-best CFP ranking). The Alamo Bowl gets the next pick, followed by the Holiday Bowl and the Las Vegas Bowl. Those bowls can choose based on their own preference so long as there isn’t more than a one-game difference in conference record between their selection and teams remaining on the board.
Starting with the Sun Bowl, which picks next, the selections are based strictly on conference record. The Jimmy Kimmel Bowl goes next and the Pac-12 also will fill one slot from either the Armed Forces Bowl, First Responder Bowl or Gasparilla Bowl.
If everything breaks right, UCLA fans could get to spend a few days on San Antonio’s River Walk as part of a trip to the Alamo Bowl. In a far less enticing scenario, they would get to roam their own homes before making a much shorter commute to SoFi Stadium for the Jimmy Kimmel Bowl.
One place UCLA probably won’t be for the holidays is the Holiday Bowl. The Bruins’ last-minute withdrawal from the game a year ago over a roster depleted by COVID-19 didn’t give bowl officials enough time to find a replacement team.
“In general, bowl games prefer to avoid back-to-back bowl trips,” Mark Neville, executive director of the Holiday Bowl, told The Times when asked about taking the Bruins again in the wake of their pullout.
Translation: A SeaWorld orca is more likely to throw a pass in the game than Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
Here is a look at UCLA’s best-case, worst-case and most likely bowl scenarios:
The Bruins (8-3 overall, 5-3 Pac-12) enter the final week of the regular season tied with Oregon State for fifth place in the conference standings. That’s not a great place to be.
But just as quickly as things have deteriorated, they could reverse course in a more upbeat fashion.
If USC beats Notre Dame and wins the Pac-12 championship game en route to the CFP, that would elevate another conference team — probably the title-game loser, but not necessarily — to the Rose Bowl. In 2016, Washington beat Colorado to win the Pac-12 title, and the Rose Bowl picked USC.
(No, there’s no realistic chance of the Bruins leapfrogging enough teams to spend Jan. 2 playing in their home stadium. Oregon, Utah and Washington are all more likely selections.)
With a victory over California on Friday, UCLA could finish in a three-way tie for third place with Washington and Utah if the Huskies lose their Apple Cup battle on the road against Washington State (a distinct possibility) and the Utes do a faceplant against Colorado (highly unlikely).
The Alamo Bowl, which gets the next pick in the Pac-12 pecking order after the Rose Bowl, could opt for the Bruins based on their breathtaking offense that averages 40 points per game, which ranks fifth nationally. UCLA also has not played in the game since 2015, elevating its desirability and the likelihood of fans wanting to travel to San Antonio for the game Dec. 29.
Some of the Bruins’ youngest fans might not even remember the Alamo.
This bowl game might be a punchline. Literally.
UCLA appearing in the Jimmy Kimmel Bowl on Dec. 17 would spark all sorts of jokes, some possibly funny. How could the Bruins get there? Envision a doomsday scenario and you’ve got it.
USC loses to Notre Dame but wins the Pac-12 championship game, sending the Trojans to the Rose Bowl after they miss out on the CFP. The Alamo Bowl takes conference runner-up Utah, and Oregon goes to the Holiday Bowl.
Washington gets selected for the Las Vegas Bowl and Oregon State, fresh off a Civil War upset of Oregon, heads to the Sun Bowl.
You’re wondering where the Bruins are in all this? They’ve fallen into a tie for sixth place alongside Washington State after losing the ultimate letdown game against Cal, which proves more irritating than the dilly-dallying UC regents.
The only salvation is that the Jimmy Kimmel Bowl picks UCLA, keeping the Bruins home while Washington State heads to the Dec. 23 Gasparilla Bowl, wherever that is.
Most likely scenario
If you like to play the odds, bet UCLA going to the Las Vegas Bowl.
In what would be a heartwarming sendoff for Thompson-Robinson, who starred at Bishop Gorman High, the quarterback gets to play his final game as a Bruin only a few miles from home at Allegiant Stadium on Dec. 17.
This scenario involves the fewest upsets. USC wins out and goes to the CFP, capping a stunning Year 1 for Lincoln Riley and the Trojans. The Rose Bowl takes Oregon (the Pac-12 runner-up, in this model) and Washington heads to the Alamo Bowl.
The Holiday Bowl chooses Utah, and UCLA, having defeated Cal to avoid that post-Thanksgiving hangover, gets a short flight to Las Vegas.
The only caveat here is that if USC doesn’t make the CFP, everyone gets bumped down a spot, starting with the Trojans going to the Rose Bowl. In that scenario, the Bruins drop to the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl on Dec. 31.
After starting the season 8-1, reviving hopes of a return to the Rose Bowl, that ending wouldn’t be g-r-r-reat!