This is it.
2021 is all or nothing for Chip Kelly. The stars have aligned and this is best shot he's had or will have for quite some time.
UCLA football opens up its fourth season under Kelly on Saturday against Hawaii at the Rose Bowl. The matchup gives the Bruins a chance to buck a few trends they've had the misfortune of falling into the past couple years, considering Kelly has not won a season opener or nonconference game since arriving in Westwood.
There's a lot more at stake than one game on an August afternoon, however.
More notably, Kelly is 10-21 across his UCLA career. It took him one season to get double digit wins when he was at Oregon, and he finished the next three years with 12. Three wins a season is a sharp decline from over 11, so to call his stint with the Bruins so far a disappointment would be an understatement.
That's all in the past, though. Kelly is still in town, and he is still in charge. It's on him to turn things around, and he has the weapons to do so this fall.
UCLA returns 93% of its production from last season, per ESPN's Bill Connelly. And that isn't just any 93%, like the 93% of production Florida Atlantic returns from its 4-3 Conference USA squad. These Bruins did finish below .500 at 3-4, but those four losses came by a combined 15 points and they never lost by more than one possession. A few different bounces of the ball, and UCLA finishes 6-1 and wins the Pac-12 South.
While that didn't come to fruition, the fact that it was all there for the taking is a testament to their talent and improvement over the past two seasons.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson took a major third-year leap, earning Second Team All-Pac-12 honors with a 156.3 passer rating, a 65.2% completion percentage and 15 total touchdowns in four and a half games. Demetric Felton is gone, but super senior running back Brittain Brown is back for another go after averaging 89.6 scrimmage yards per game as the second-string for most of the season. Greg Dulcich is one of the best tight ends in the country, Kyle Philips is a top-tier slot receiver and all five starting offensive linemen are returning after taking a major leap in both pass protection and run blocking.
On defense, assistant head coach Brian Norwood has now been with the program for nearly 18 months and his system is expected to be fully integrated in defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro's defense. Safety Qwuantrezz Knight has a better nose for the ball than anyone on the West Coast, the linebackers have more athleticism and depth than they have in years past and a few position changes could lead to better pass rushing and defense over the middle.
One drawback of having so much experience, whether Kelly will admit it or not, is that UCLA has now put all its eggs in the short term basket.
Whether it's because of the NFL Draft, graduation or NCAA eligibility, the Bruins are going to have very few returning starters in 2022. Of all the offensive and defensive starters on its two-deep depth chart, only one is an underclassman.
That means great things for 2021, but not so great things for 2022 and beyond. What complicates things even more is the fact that the young players stepping in as starters next year probably won't have a lot of game experience under their belts, since the majority of snaps will be going to upperclassmen this year.
Other schools are in the same boat, so it's far from a death sentence for those future teams. Still, UCLA will have the most talent relative to the rest of the Pac-12 this year and this year alone, so it's not unfair to assume this will be the Bruins' peak in the standings.
All of this isn't to say that Kelly is bound to choke away this perfect storm working in his favor. It's just best someone set the expectations and lay out the stakes so if or when those bars aren't cleared, people are held accountable.
Eight wins or more, and Kelly is safe. That could mean seven plus a bowl win.
Five or fewer, and he's good as gone. No bowl means no more Kelly.
Six or seven, and athletic director Martin Jarmond has a serious decision to make.
Does he hit the reset button, seeing Kelly turned in a .500 season with the best roster he'll likely ever have at UCLA, or give him one more chance given the financial and scheduling implications of axing him.
Kelly has a $9 million buyout in his contract, but that figure drops to zero if UCLA decides to terminate his contract after Jan. 15, 2022. Trying to fire a coach and hire a new one starting in January would put the Bruins at a disadvantage thanks to a delayed entrance to the coaching carousel. Saving that $9 million might result in UCLA hiring a less-than-ideal coach, so firing Kelly might not even be worth it at that point.
On the other hand, holding onto Kelly after a fourth consecutive subpar season just to save some money is also not a move a winning program would make. It is understandable given the fact UCLA Athletics is $40 million in the red over the last two years, which is not insignificant and will surely play a part in Kelly's future.
The ideal situation for UCLA is a home run year for Kelly and his team, one that makes them feel comfortable trusting him for the foreseeable future. If he isn't able to do so, they better hope donors come forward and put up money for Kelly's buyout. Holding onto him to save money or getting a late start on the coaching search for the same reason could bury the Bruins even deeper than they have been over the past couple seasons.
That means there are two real options on the table for UCLA, assuming it wants to stay relevant and respected by its peers, alumni and fans – win at a high level this year, or start from scratch yet again.
There is no in between, since the limbo would only delay the inevitable.
Kelly has to win, or his job will be handed over to someone who can.