UCLA should benefit from easiest football schedule in decades

Have you heard the ones about UCLA’s nonconference football schedule?

After agreeing to play Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama — all at the Rose Bowl — the Bruins are on the verge of a sponsorship deal with Sprinkles cupcakes. . . .

The Bruins became the first team in college football history to receive a bye into conference play. . . .

You know it’s an easy schedule when none of the teams’ nicknames come to mind. . . .

Before UCLA moves into the Big Ten, it’s making a stopover in the Football Championship Subdivision. . . .

Already having covered the top of one end zone, UCLA may need to tarp the rest of the Rose Bowl. . . .

Jokes aside, it’s hard not to laugh. Yes, this schedule is partially a function of Michigan backing out of games against UCLA in 2022 and 2023 so the Wolverines could play Hawaii and East Carolina. It’s also unequivocally the Bruins’ most creampuff-packed schedule in at least three decades.

One might say it’s UCLA’s easiest schedule since facing Manual Arts High, Occidental Frosh and USS Idaho in 1919. Blame Michigan?

“The game got dropped,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said, referring to the Wolverines, when asked about a schedule filled with firsts and presumably victories. “It’s crazy how the world turns around, huh?”

Crazy easy, one might say. As easy as 1, 2, 3 (and-0).

Left in a bind considering most nonconference games are scheduled a decade in advance, the Bruins pivoted from Michigan into history. The Alabama State game Sept. 10 represents the first time in more than a century of UCLA football that the team will play an FCS opponent. In 2023, the Bruins will face another historically Black university — also operating at the FCS level — when North Carolina Central comes to the Rose Bowl.

“We were in a unique situation where we really need to find two games and it’s not exactly easy to do at that late stage,” said Josh Rebholz, the UCLA senior associate athletic director who oversees the team’s scheduling, said of Michigan backing out in 2019.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson looks to pass against USC in November.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson looks to pass against USC in November.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“That opened the door for the opportunity and then we had another conversation as a staff and with coach Kelly and said, ‘Listen, there’s only a few programs left that don’t play those universities at that [FCS] level and is it going to affect our ability to play in a Rose Bowl, is it going to affect our ability to win the Pac-12, is it going to affect our ability to recruit talented kids?’ Of course, none of those things are true, so we were able to say, ‘You know what, let’s do something different.’ ”

UCLA playing Alabama State will leave USC and Notre Dame as the only major college teams to never have faced an FCS opponent and the Trojans will be alone in that department after the Fighting Irish play Tennessee State in 2023. USC had briefly agreed to play UC Davis in 2021 before reversing course amid fan backlash.

“I don’t think you get a trophy for not playing an FCS school,” Kelly said, “ … so to us I think it’s what was available and I think Martin [Jarmond, UCLA’s athletic director] wanted to see if he could partner with the HBCUs and I think we have two of them coming up, so that’s a pretty cool deal. So we’ll be excited about it when Alabama State comes here.”

It’s the first time UCLA won’t play a Power Five conference team or Notre Dame in nonconference play since 1992. That season, the Bruins swept Cal State Fullerton, Brigham Young and San Diego State before losing their next five games on the way to a 6-5 finish.

Thirty years later, UCLA appears to have scheduled another 3-0 start, which would be its first since 2015. The media picked Bowling Green to finish fifth out of six teams in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference. South Alabama was projected to finish second in the West Division of the Sun Belt Conference, behind the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns.

Alabama State? Let’s just say the halftime show featuring its band should be electric. FCS teams beat FBS counterparts about as often as cold rain drenches the Rose Bowl in September.

Considering games against rebuilding Colorado and Washington come next, the Bruins are widely expected to be 5-0 heading into a showdown against defending Pac-12 champion Utah on Oct. 8 at the Rose Bowl. UCLA will spend most of its season in Southern California, with five of its first six games at home and a record eight games at the Rose Bowl.

Former UCLA defensive tackle Datone Jones posted a photo of the schedule on Twitter, adding, “yeah, if I’m a player I’m locked this is stealing. … We gonna take what they give us & display dominance.”

The number to track early on will be attendance. Can UCLA top 100,000 for all three nonconference games combined? Considering the Bruins drew only 32,982 for their opener against Hawaii last season, it might be close.

Enter promotions galore. UCLA has dubbed the game against Alabama State a “Black Excellence Game” in celebration of its debut against an HBCU, and the game against South Alabama a “Los Bruins Game” in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. Ticket packages include exclusive T-shirts tailored to each promotion.

As the time-worn sports expression goes, there’s no promotion like winning. Given its schedule, UCLA figures to do plenty of that to start the season.

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