The 2012 rule change that allowed five-win teams to be bowl eligible under certain circumstances never came into play prior to this year, when it happened twice.
And in the Foster Farms Bowl, Nebraska had the chance to join San Jose State as the first 5-7 teams in NCAA history to win a bowl game. Except Nebraska’s wouldn’t come against relative FBS newcomer Georgia State. No, the Huskers’ win would need to be over a UCLA team that was once just one win shy of vying for the Pac-12 Championship.
It shouldn’t have been close. But this is the Pac-12. It was after dark. It was college football. It was UCLA. Of course it was close. Of course the team that was derided for even being allowed to play in a bowl at all beat an 8-win Pac-12 South team, 37-29.
For the casual college football fan, this is everything that’s beautiful about football. UCLA has a quarterback who is already being talked about as a potential No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft one day. Nebraska had Tommy Armstrong, who threw eight interceptions in the nine quarters leading up to the game and won’t be an NFL quarterback, if he’s an NFL player at all. UCLA bathed in preseason hype. Nebraska was buried in the Big 10 amidst the Ohio State quarterback hysteria and Michigan State earning a playoff berth.
Yet, here we are. Nebraska finished its season 6-7, while UCLA finsihed 8-5. Two unremarkable seasons, one legitimately historic finish. Even if it was for all the wrong reasons.
In reality, this was a perfect one-game summation of UCLA’s season–both brilliant and vexing. It was the same UCLA team that gave USC a competitive first half before disappearing in a 40-21 loss. It was the same UCLA team that allowed Arizona State to score 38 points. That has, sadly and somewhat predictably, been the Bruins’ modus operandi this season. They had a true freshman quarterback in Rosen, whom coach Jim Mora entrusted with much of the offense. Inconsistencies were bound to happen.
But it was the occasions in which these happened that may be the most confusing aspect of this UCLA team. Arizona State? The Sun Devils struggled to crack .500, and they thumped the Bruins by two touchdowns. Colorado was ultimately a win, but it should have never come down to four points, just like a one-point white-knuckler over BYU shouldn’t have. UCLA rarely played a complete game this season, and it didn’t in the finale.
Consider Nebraska. The Huskers lost to Miami, Illinois and Wisconsin in a span of four weeks. It let up 55 points to Purdue. No one can take away Nebraska’s win over Michigan State, but when assessing the entire body of work, Nebraska was one of the most underwhelming teams in the Big 10. In hindsight, that made it the perfect opponent to upset UCLA, which had made a bad habit of allowing mediocre teams to hang around just long enough.
Nebraska ran for 326 yards on 62 – count ‘em, 62 – carries, becoming the third team to rush for more than 300 yards on UCLA this season. It got to a point that when UCLA finally stopped Armstrong and Nebraska from its inexorable march downfield every possession, Twitter exploded as if UCLA actually scored.
When some of the current seniors were freshmen, this game would not have been possible. A 5-7 team couldn’t have made a bowl in the first place. Said team also wouldn’t have made a bowl because there were not 40 of them, up 22 from 1995. So, yes, we have reached a point where 62.5 percent of FBS college football teams qualify for a post-season game.
And one of those teams, Nebraska, lost two more games than it won.
And it beat an 8-4 UCLA team.
And if you’ve been paying attention to UCLA this season, it all made perfect sense.