UCLA Football: Power Ranking the Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

Jason FrayCorrespondent IAugust 7, 2012

UCLA Football: Power Ranking the Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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    Don't look now, but the start to the 2012 college football season is rapidly approaching.

    For the UCLA Bruins, a new era has begun. New head man Jim L. Mora is looking to immensely improve a squad that ended with a disappointing 6-8 record last season.

    With the opening game against Rice in less than a month's time, the Bruins hope to get off to a good start with a win on the road against a manageable opponent. 

    Let's take a look at a ranking of the upcoming schedule for the Bruins, from easiest to most difficult.

Houston: September 15 at Rose Bowl (7:30 p.m. PT)

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    Let's face it, the Cougars are in a period of flux.

    Not only did they graduate leading rushers Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes, but they also lost three extremely productive receivers in Tyron Carrier, Justin Johnson and E.J. Smith.

    Last season alone, the trio combined for 299 receptions, 4,236 receiving yards and 71 touchdowns.

    Starting linebacker Sammy Brown graduated after leading Houston with 30 tackles-for-loss last season. Marcus McGraw, another solid 'backer, has also departed.

    Oh, and quarterback Case Keenum—the face of the program who threw for an astounding 19,217 yards and 155 touchdowns during his collegiate career—is also gone from the squad.

    Needless to say, there will be a big transitional period for Houston. New head man Tony Levine takes over the job from former coach Kevin Sumlin, who left for Texas A&M.

    UCLA should run the ball effectively with Johnathan Franklin against an undersized and green defensive line. Not only that, but the Bruins have much more overall depth than the Cougars and are playing the contest at home.   

At Rice: August 30 at 4:30 p.m. PT

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    Based on talent alone, Houston is better than Rice. However, the contest against Rice will provide UCLA with a couple more challenges.

    For one thing, it's the first game of the year, and UCLA will more than likely be breaking in the season with an inexperienced quarterback (red-shirt freshman Brett Hundley).

    In addition, temperatures at kickoff should be sweltering. That quite possibly could be a reason as to why the Bruins are having fall camp out in San Bernardino. Mora apparently thinks that executing camp in high temperatures will help.

    As for Rice as an opponent, it will rely upon throwing the football. Quarterback Taylor McHargue will look for receivers Luke Wilson and Vance McDonald early and often.

    Former Michigan running back/receiver Sam McGuffie should be a player the Bruins will key on. He has great agility and quickness and is a true home-run threat any time he touches the ball.

    He'll be utilized in a myriad of ways, and his speed will definitely be showcased from the slot as well. 

    Linebacker Cameron Nwosu is the heart and soul of the defense. He led the team in tackles a year ago with 108 and was named as a third team All C-USA member.   

    There's no secret that UCLA is the more talented football team. With that said, it'll have to withstand the heat and stay constantly hydrated to minimize cramping.

    This is also an important game for the team starting the season on a positive note. For the Bruins, they hope to come away with some confidence before their contest the following week against a tough foe in Nebraska.

Arizona: November 3 at Rose Bowl (Time TBA)

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    There's reason for celebration out in the desert with the hiring of famed offensive mind Rich Rodriguez.

    However, those celebratory expectations should be tempered a bit in this upcoming season.

    The team currently is lacking in overall talent and depth. Gone are the likes of quality quarterback Nick Foles and big-play wide receiver Juron Criner. In their place will be rising senior Matt Scott and top returning receiver Dan Buckner.

    Scott definitely has a great deal of talent. He's quite mobile, but can also throw the ball with effectiveness. Not only will Buckner be expected to produce, but he's easily the biggest threat from the receiver position.

    In addition, Arizona hopes that sophomore Ka'Deem Carey can continue to improve after a solid freshman campaign. 

    Incoming Akron transfer Brian Wagner was supposed to be a stabilizer in the heart of the defense. However, the nation's leading tackler decided to quit football, leaving the Wildcats with a gaping hole in the center of the linebacker corps. 

    With overall depth (especially on the defensive side of the ball) a huge question mark, it's quite conceivable to think that the Wildcats will have to rely on incoming freshmen for instant play time—something that's not exactly desired.

    This season might not be the most pleasant for fans of the university, but the long-term prognosis for the Wildcats is strong.

    From the Bruins' prospective, there's also the want to atone for the embarrassing 48-12 loss last season in Tucson on national television.

    With the motivation of revenge, look for the Bruins to win handily at home.  

At Colorado: September 29 (Time TBA)

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    The Buffs had a rude inauguration into the Pac-12 last season.

    They finished with a 3-10 overall record, 2-7 in conference play. As a team, they finished 106th nationally in rushing yards per game (108.7), 109th in points per game (19.8) and 109th in points allowed per game (36.5).

    Needless to say, massive improvement needs to take place across the board for Jon Embree and his staff.

    As Embree builds a team relying on youth and inexperience, growing pains will take place. Colorado will field a team short on experience, but not lacking in exuberance and effort.

    Look for incoming freshmen Yuri Wright, Kenneth Crawley and Marques Mosley to play early. In terms of veteran leadership, the team will be buoyed by offensive lineman David Bakhtiari, defensive tackle Will Pericak and linebacker Jon Major.  

    If the explosive Paul Richardson can recover from injury, he'll give Colorado one of the best deep threats in the conference.

    Things are looking up for the Buffs, but it'll take a few years for Embree to build depth and get his recruits into the program.

    This matchup with Colorado definitely has the makings of a classic "trap game" for the Bruins. It's a game they should win on paper, but being on the road in an environment with high altitude could make this a close contest. 

Oregon State: September 22 at Rose Bowl (Time TBA)

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    The Beavers had a porous 2011 season in which they went finished with a 3-9 record.

    Where did the problems stem? For one thing, they had an incredibly hard time running the football. OSU finished 19th nationally in pass yards per contest, but finished 118th nationally in rushing yards per game. That number has to improve greatly in order to not only improve as a football team, but to take pressure off talented quarterback Sean Mannion.  

    Mannion has all the tools to be an NFL signal-caller one day, but he has the propensity to throw into coverage—in large part due to his strong arm and thinking that he can fit the ball in the smallest of windows. 

    Markus Wheaton is one of the better receivers in the conference, and sophomore Brandin Cooks provides the Beavers with quickness and speed from the slot. 

    Defensively, cornerback Jordan Poyer is a star. He's a preseason All-Pac-12 First-Team selection and is a bonafide NFL prospect. Also, he's noted for his prowess as a returner.

    For Oregon State to have a successful season, it's got to run the ball with some semblance of effectiveness. Defensively, it needs to apply more pressure to the opposing quarterback. 

    Look for sophomore defensive end Dylan Wynn to be a galvanizing force on the defensive line.

    The Bruins will surely hope to stop the pass game and make the Beavers beat them on the ground. With UCLA employing two experienced defensive backs in Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester, it should be able to slow Wheaton and Cooks.  

At Arizona State: October 27 (Time TBA)

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    With new head coach Todd Graham coming to Tempe from Pitt, he'll look to implement his "high octane" offense.

    With quarterback Brock Osweiler leaving for the NFL, a three horse race between Taylor Kelly, Michael Eubank and Michael Bercovici is still taking place.

    Regardless of who wins the quarterback derby, the team will rely upon its impressive stable of running backs.

    Cameron Marshall is the best of the bench and is undoubtedly one of the best returning backs in the conference. With his downhill running style, expect him to have a huge year in the zone based scheme that Graham's offense employs.

    D.J. Foster, Kyle Middlebrooks and Deantre Lewis all bring impressive speed to the table, and noted returner Jamal Miles will be perhaps the most explosive playmaker on the offense. 

    Defensively, the talented headache Vontaze Burfict has left, and that might be an addition by subtraction for the Sun Devils. 

    The secondary should be solid with Osahon Irabor and Keelan Johnson, and the talented but volatile Junior Onyeali returns as an outside 'backer in the new 3-4 scheme. 

    There will be a period of transition for the Sun Devils. They have to replace the vast majority of their receiving corps in addition to a highly productive quarterback. 

    In a Pac-12 South battle, I expect this to be a hotly contested game. UCLA doesn't usually play well in Tempe, but I expect it to eek out a relatively close victory.

At Cal: October 6 (Time TBA)

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    The seat under Cal head coach Jeff Tedford is getting pretty hot right now.

    After building Cal into a very respectable program, the Bears have somewhat leveled off and have yet to take that "next step" into the upper echelon of the conference.

    Last season was a definite disappointment, as Cal finished 7-6. This season, quarterback Zach Maynard has to play with more consistency, or Cal will yet again be mediocre.

    The defense got a big boost with the transfer of talented linebacker Khairi Fortt from Penn State. He, along with defensive lineman Mustafa Jalil, defensive back Marc Anthony and nose guards Kendrick Payne and Aaron Tipoti should lead the defense.

    With both schools being part of the same university system, UCLA and Cal are natural rivals. Neither like each other, and the games often can get heated.

    UCLA hasn't won in Berkeley since 1998, but I expect the Bruins to buck that trend and pull out a victory.

    Last season, it pressured Maynard into throwing four interceptions. If it can shadow wideout Keenan Allen and run the ball consistently, it should win. This is the type of game that the Bruins haven't been able to win in recent memory.

    If they want to ascend from mediocrity, they've got to take care of business—starting in Berkeley. 

Nebraska: September 8 at Rose Bowl (4:30 P.m. PT)

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    This big non-conference tilt against Nebraska is the first real test of the season for Mora and the Bruins.

    For head coach Bo Pelini, he'll be looking to rebuild a defense that lost stalwarts Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard.

    Fortunately for the Cornhuskers, they return experienced members such as Southern California native Cameron Meredith, defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, linebacker Will Compton and defensive back Ciante Evans.

    There's no secret that Nebraska wants to control the clock and run the ball. And it all starts with standout tailback Rex Burkhead

    Not only is he a superlative football player, but he's a consummate teammate and a leader. There might not be a more respected member of the team than Burkhead.

    In this contest, UCLA wants to force Nebraska to throw the football. Quarterback and southern California native Taylor Martinez is a force from a running standpoint, but the Cornhuskers finished 104th nationally in pass yards per game (162.7).

    Undoubtedly, the Bruins front seven has to keep Burkhead and Martinez in check. If they can, it will force Martinez into long passing situations—something he's never excelled in. 

    Either way, this should be a very physical and entertaining game.

Utah: October 13 at Rose Bowl (Time TBA)

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    Utah definitely held its own and proved that it can compete with the boys in its first season as a member of the Pac-12 conference.

    The Utes possess a staunch, aggressive defense that plays with great energy and enthusiasm. Of course, they're led by Star Lotulelei. He leads a defensive line that might be the best in the conference.

    The mammoth defensive tackle has a great combination of quickness and power. Not only is he considered the best defensive player in the entire conference, but he's a future high first-round NFL draft choice.

    Last season, quarterback Jordan Wynn suffered an injury—thoroughly hindering the efforts throwing the football. The team often relied on JC transfer John White as a result. The diminutive back led the team with 1,519 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.

    With the team returning nine starters on defense and seven on offense, it should be in line for a solid year.

    They'll be battling UCLA for second place in the Pac-12 South, and this matchup between the two teams could very well be telling as to where each team finishes in the division. 

    I see an extremely close game between the two teams when they square off in the Rose Bowl on October 13. The result could easily go either way. 

At Washington State: November 10 (Time TBA)

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    The pirate ship has landed and taken up shop in Pullman, Washington.

    With the eccentric yet thoroughly entertaining Mike Leach captaining the Washington State Cougars ship, expect tons of fireworks up on the Palouse.

    Leach has a very capable quarterback to work with in Jeff Tuel and a preseason All-America selection in wide receiver Marquess Wilson. With the famed "Air Raid" offense being incorporated, expect the Cougars and their litany of skill players (Rickey Galvin, Gabe Marks, Theron West, Andrei Lintz) to put up points.

    Defensively, there are some question marks, specifically with depth up front.

    Matters weren't made any easier with the dismissal of three projected defensive starters (defensive tackle Anthony Laurenzi and linebackers C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi).

    Despite the losses, expect Travis Long to have a strong year from a hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot. The All Pac-12 performer is easily the most talented and decorated member of the defense to this point.   

    Many might be surprised by the placing of this game in the rankings, but this contest has all the makings of a quintessential trap game for the Bruins.

    At this point in the season, the Cougar offense should be clicking on all cylinders. Making the trek to Pullman isn't easy in the least bit—and it's especially made more difficult with the proposition of snow flurries and inclement weather.

Stanford: November 24 at Rose Bowl (Time TBA)

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    There might not have been a more underrated offensive team nationally than the Stanford Cardinal in 2011.

    Under the direction of head coach David Shaw and quarterback Andrew Luck, Stanford finished last season seventh nationally in points per game (43.2), 18th in rushing yards per game (210.6) and 22nd in pass yards per contest (278.7). They also finished eighth overall with 489.3 yards per game.

    With the Luck era over, the Cardinal hope that Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes can take the reins and manage the game.

    Running back Stepfan Taylor will definitely be leaned upon as a stabilizing force—especially when he ran for 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. 

    Defensively, Stanford returns six starters from its front seven a year ago. Both Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov will be counted upon for production from the linebacker corps, while defensive linemen Terrence Stephens and Ben Gardner provide quality play up front.

    With some uncertainty from the quarterback position, Taylor will get plenty of carries as the primary option offensively.

    The defense should be very solid, and collectively, the unit is one of the better ones in the conference.

    This will be a tough game for UCLA. Stanford will look to pound the ball and control the clock while playing hard-nosed and sound defense.

    UCLA has to get after the opposing quarterback—whether it be Nottingham or Nunes. Neither has much experience, and with constant pressure, the Bruins might be able to force the chosen signal caller into some mistakes.

Southern Cal: November 17 at Rose Bowl (Time TBA)

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    The dreaded crosstown rival Southern Cal Trojans will prove to be the most difficult game for the Bruins.

    The USA Today preseason top 25 poll has the Trojans ranked third in the nation—and for good reason.

    Not only do the Trojans have the top college quarterback and potential top overall NFL draft choice in Matt Barkley, but they also possess perhaps the top receiver duo in the nation in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

    Defensively, the team is buoyed by a strong secondary featuring talented cornerback Nickell Robey and All-American safety T.J. McDonald.

    The starting 22 for the Trojans might be the most talented in the nation. But with scholarship restrictions, the team isn't exactly deep. One injury to a key member of the team, and it could adversely affect the team in a negative manner.

    For UCLA, it has to be respectable in this clash. If you lived in Los Angeles, it was hard not to hear about the 50-0 thumping that the Trojans put on the Bruins last season.

    The level of pride and effort that the Bruins compete with has to be enhanced—especially in a game against their biggest rival. 

Final Verdict

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    At this point, there's no way of knowing how the season will go. Fall camp just began, and injuries are bound to happen between now and the start of the season.

    In addition, a crippling injury to a key member of the team could truly change the complexion of the season entirely. 

    With a favorable schedule, it's conceivable to think that the Bruins could finish with a 9-3 record.

    However, there's been a huge lack of consistency in recent memory to make such a proclamation. Here's a prediction as to how UCLA will fare this season...

    at Rice: W

    Nebraska: L

    Houston: W

    Oregon State: W

    at Colorado: W

    at Cal: W

    Utah: L

    at Arizona State: W

    Arizona: W

    at Washington State: L

    Southern Cal: L

    Stanford: L

     

    Final record: 7-5