College football top 25 countdown: No. 22 UCLA

TV money should make Bruins a team worth watching, even if they're not yet at the top of the Pac-12 pack.

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Jim Mora

UCLA coach Jim Mora watches over his players during a spring practice session in April. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times / April 2, 2013)

We have never been so excited to rank a team riding a three-game losing streak and coming off a 23-point Bridgepoint Holiday Bowl defeat to five-loss Baylor.

UCLA had never made the Holiday Bowl before last season and, at this rate, a first trip to the Alamo Bowl is not beyond the realm.

It's not important that UCLA is not ready to compete with Oregon or Stanford or, last year, even California's Golden Bears. What is important is that UCLA is finally cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that used to require five signatures to procure a stapler.

The oil gush of conference television money has allowed the school to up the ante for assistant coaches and dole out, in a recession, $100,000 raises for public school associate athletic directors.

The attitude is no longer, "Ask not what UCLA can do for you, ask what you can do for UCLA."

The program is shedding its 99-cent store sandwich board and finally taking the football business seriously.

You know it's a new day when UCLA can beat out Notre Dame for the nation's top defensive line recruit. It's different when recruiting coordinators are getting signing bonuses.

It has been a while — Cade McNown in 1998 — since the school has been able to tout a quarterback as a Heisman candidate. And do so by not even bringing Brett Hundley to Pac-12 Conference Media Day.

Serious schools don't need to send out bobblehead dolls to drum up Heisman hype. Serious schools look at the schedule and know winning will bring all the votes needed.

UCLA has turned some sort of physical and emotional corner.

"We have a vision," second-year Coach Jim Mora said of a program that once operated blind.

It started last year with Mora moving training camp to San Bernardino to toughen a program whose mascot could have been the "Pillsbury Dough-Bruin."

This is far from a finished product. The bowl loss to Baylor was a classic case of UCLA confusing its name-brand image and success in other NCAA sports with its success in football. It's the same attitude UCLA once took into a Las Vegas Bowl against Wyoming.

The Bruins are filled with holes and flaws. You can try to replace running back Johnathan Franklin by committee, but you'd much rather have Franklin. The secondary is as depleted as the schedule is challenging.

UCLA players are still in need of daily program affirmation. Last year's turning point came early against visiting Nebraska.

"When we beat Nebraska we were like, 'OK, we can really do that and we're actually a good team,'" star linebacker Anthony Barr recently said.

UCLA needs to validate that benchmark with a return victory at Nebraska on Sept. 14.

Every school the Bruins surprised last year will be more prepared this year.

The victory over USC was epic in that it was only UCLA's second win in the series since 1998. One win does not constitute a turnaround as much as it got USC's attention after years of crosstown coasting.

The template for a takeover, though, is taking shape. For the first time in years, many USC fans would trade football coaches with UCLA.

USC still sputters under the sanctions-levied 75-scholarship cap while UCLA continues to beef up at the maxed-out 85.

Mora isn't yet a reprise of Pete Carroll, a washed-out former NFL coach who turned out to be shockingly successful at the college level.

Mora actually had a better first year, 9-5 compared to Carroll's 6-6 debut in 2001, and there is a similar freshness and spirit.

Carroll lost to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl his first year.

UCLA fans can only hope Mora, a season-ending loser to Baylor, has his Bruins on the same course.

Top 25 so far: 25. Oklahoma; 24. Wisconsin; 23. Fresno State.

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

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