EL PASO — The last day of 2013, the first step toward 2014.
UCLA will play its final football game of the season Tuesday when the No. 17 Bruins meet Virginia Tech in the Hyundai Sun Bowl.
But the game can be viewed as more of a beginning than an end for UCLA, which is seeking its first 10-win season since 2005.
"We really look at the bowl game as the first game of next season," said Jake Brendel, UCLA's sophomore center. "Being able to go out there and perform well, that will spring us into 2014."
There is a lot at stake for UCLA looking forward, including a possible place among college football's elite programs.
It will be Coach Jim Mora's third season. In his first two, he has taken the Bruins beyond where his recent predecessors detoured.
UCLA played in the Pac-12 championship game in 2012. And even though they fell short of making a return trip this season, the Bruins (9-3) actually moved forward, losing only to highly ranked teams — No. 5 Stanford, No. 10 Oregon and No. 16 Arizona State.
"A good performance in this bowl sets us up for success," Brendel said.
That's provided, of course, that quarterback Brett Hundley returns for his junior season instead of declaring for the NFL draft.
Mora said Monday he didn't think the Sun Bowl would be Hundley's last game for UCLA, but quickly added, "I am very hopeful it won't be."
The Bruins need Hundley in 2014. Expectations have been raised among a fan base that can be fickle. Mora has talked about Rose Bowls and national championship games — not Sun Bowls — as the goal.
UCLA has invested in the football program like never before. Mora and his assistants are being paid more than any UCLA staff in the past, and the school is moving toward building an on-campus, football-only training, locker room and meeting facility.
At some point, returns will be expected.
UCLA has not played in a Rose Bowl game since the 1998 season, the Bruins' longest drought since the conference champion became an automatic qualifier. The wait for a national title has been much longer. The Bruins' only championship was in 1954, when they were crowned champions by the now-defunct United Press International poll while Ohio State won the Associated Press title.
Mora points to progress this season, some in terms of intangibles such as leadership and strength and others apparent even to the average fan.
There was the victory at Nebraska a week after the death of receiver Nick Pasquale. The loss to Arizona State denied UCLA a third consecutive appearance in the conference title game, but the Bruins came back the next week to defeat USC for the second consecutive season after having only one win over the Trojans from 1999 to 2011.
Those accomplishments "showed a level of mental toughness and perseverance that maybe we didn't have in the past," Mora said.
That's good for now. But what's next?
Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech's coach the last 27 seasons, has a tip.
"Well, I know at Virginia Tech you better win [the bowl game]," Beamer said. "When I first started out, 21 [bowl] games ago, we were just happy to be there. Then I would go to those alumni meetings in the spring and they weren't so happy. I found out it is a lot better when you can win that last game of the year."
The Bruins were blistered, 49-26, by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl last season.
A win in the Sun Bowl would do more for UCLA than just keep alumni purring. "I think it will indicate that we're on track for where we want to be," Mora said.
There are plenty of substantial obstacles along that path. Mora's UCLA teams are 1-6 against opponents that finished the season ranked in the AP top 25 — where Arizona State, Oregon and Stanford are assured to be after their bowl games.
The next step, Mora said, is "finding a way to beat Stanford and beat Oregon and beat Arizona State, the teams we lost to this season."
Virginia Tech does not provide the Bruins with the opportunity for a signature victory. The Hokies (8-4) were ranked as high as 16th this season, but lost three of their last five games and tumbled from the rankings.
There is a role for Virginia Tech in the Bruins' plans, though: that of a launching pad. "We can really escalate the momentum for this program," Hundley said.
UCLA will need all the momentum it can muster. Along with Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State, the Bruins' 2014 schedule includes a date at Virginia — for the season opener — and a meeting against Texas at Cowboys Stadium.
"Winning this game would show what we're doing," Hundley said, "and what we're building."
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