T.J. Simers: Rick Neuheisel still has a chance to keep his job
We have reached the halfway mark in Rick Neuheisel’s fight for survival at UCLA. It’s been very thrilling.
He lost a game he should have won in Houston to start the "Rick must go" campaign.
But he’s come back to win the games he had to win or get fired on the spot: San Jose State, Oregon State and Washington State.
Thursday night’s game in Arizona is now the swing game.
If the Bruins win, they still have a shot at seven wins; if they lose, they have no margin of error when it comes to winning six.
Six wins makes the Bruins bowl eligible but does not guarantee a bowl invitation or another year on the job for Neuheisel. When UCLA went to Washington, D.C., a few years back, it did so because it finished with six wins and the bowls ran out of seven-win teams to fill all the games.
Seven wins, though, earns UCLA a bowl game, and Neuheisel rejoins the living.
UCLA is 3-3. It’s hard to say any Pac-12 game is winnable for the Bruins, but if Neuheisel is correct in saying UCLA is on the right track, then it should beat Arizona, Cal, Colorado and Utah.
So far under Neuheisel, the Bruins have pulled no conference surprises, so they figure to lose to Arizona State and USC.
Arizona is 1-10 going back to last season. It just fired its head coach and named the guy in charge of the 114th-ranked defense in the country as its new head coach.
Obviously Arizona must be favored to beat UCLA.
It’s also a trap game for UCLA. Arizona will be riding a high, believing this a fresh start for everyone. It’s a home game, nationally televised and a chance for Arizona to regain some self-esteem.
No excuses. If Neuheisel is the right guy for the UCLA job, he finds a way for his team to prevail and move onto the next challenge.
As it is, this is probably the best year a coach on the hot seat could hope for if everything is riding on a bowl invitation.
The Pac-12 has commitments to seven bowl games -- depending how the BCS stuff shakes out. And since the Trojans are not eligible for a bowl invitation, the Pac-12 will have to dig deeper into its ranks.
Right now, Stanford, Oregon, Washington and Arizona State have at least five wins each, with the expectation they will have no difficulty winning the required six to become bowl eligible.
That leaves three bowls open with four teams in the Pac-12 currently packing 3-3 records. But none of them -- Washington State, UCLA, Cal and Utah -- can be considered a cinch to win three more.
But thanks to USC, a Pac-12 team with six wins has a much better chance to lock itself into a bowl game.
As excitement builds, with everyone sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to see if UCLA can go 6-6, why not dream a little.
(By the way, would Neuheisel qualify for Pac-12 coach-of-the-year honors if his team finishes 6-6?)
A seventh-place finish in the Pac-12 would send UCLA to the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque. It would be considered a step forward for the Bruins’ football program.
Sixth place would send them to the Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, as much incentive as any team might need not to finish seventh.
A fifth-place showing -- and why not shoot for the stars? -- would have the Bruins going to the Las Vegas Bowl.
Right now, they are all within reach, already a monumental victory for Neuheisel after the first six games of the season.
I’m already getting goose bumps thinking there might be a chance that I might be writing about him again next season.
Photo: Rick Neuheisel congratulates kicker Kip Smith after Smith's PAT put the Bruins up, 27-17, over San Jose Stae in the fourth quarter Saturday, Sept. 10. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.