UCLA Football: Can the Bruins Win the Pac-12 South?
The UCLA football program is seven games into the Jim Mora era, and it looks like things are heading in the right direction.
The Bruins, led by freshman QB Brett Hundley, are 5-2 with a solid non-conference win over Nebraska and some impressive offensive numbers.
But are they ready to compete for the conference crown this year?
After sweeping the out-of-conference slate, UCLA has faltered in the start of Pac-12 play, lumbering to a 2-2 conference record. And while a seven-point loss to now-No. 7 Oregon State isn't awful, a 26-point loss to a 1-4 California squad is.
So is UCLA for real? Or are the Bruins still a season away from greatness? Let's take a look at the remaining schedule to gauge just how close the 2012 Bruins are to the conference title conversation.
At Arizona State, Oct. 27
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The showdown with ASU looming this afternoon is arguably the biggest game, with the highest stakes, for UCLA's conference title hopes. The Bruins are 2-2 in Pac-12 play, and a third loss would make contention in the South Division a pipe dream.
On the other hand, a victory could put UCLA on track to challenge bitter crosstown rival USC for first place. With a tiebreaker over the Sun Devils in hand, the 3-2 Bruins would have only the Trojans to worry about in the South (assuming USC handles its business in Tucson).
But let's save looking ahead for the next few slides and focus on today's nationally televised, implication-rich matchup.
UCLA is coming off a bye, while Arizona State is beaten and bruised from a date with Oregon in Week 8. The Devils lost their two top D-linemen early in the battle with the Ducks, and the result was a deflating blowout loss. The Bruins have a prolific offensive attack behind the play of QB Brett Hundley and RB Johnathan Franklin and could run wild on a depleted Sun Devil D.
As of this morning, DT Will Sutton is listed as doubtful to play, while DE Junior Onyeali is probable. The beastly D-linemen have combined for a ridiculous 12.5 sacks in 2012 and could really key in on the UCLA rushers should they be healthy.
If Hundley is forced to throw in excess, the Bruins may be stuck in neutral. The receiving corps has been decimated by injury, and the hostile environment at Sun Devil Stadium has the potential to rattle a young offensive line.
Senior WR Jerry Johnson is listed as probable to return from a rib injury, which would provide a major boost in experience if he does take the field in Tempe.
On defense, UCLA will look to pressure emerging star QB Taylor Kelly and contain his stable of productive backs. The Bruin front seven has been aggressive so far under defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, but they may have to dial it back a bit against the Devils.
Kelly is an accurate passer (67 percent on the year) and the UCLA secondary has been consistently suspect, so the linebackers will need to drop back in coverage to help out. If the Bruins can limit the pass and take away big play opportunities, they have a good chance to slow ASU's offensive attack.
This game is the definition of a toss-up, as both teams have been good but not great this season. But a pick must be made, so I'll go with UCLA in a hard-fought offensive affair. With the win, the Bruins will be alive and well in the conference title hunt.
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Arizona, Nov. 3
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Arizona is off to a strong start under first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, and the program appears to be on the rise. Despite a middling 4-3 record, the Cats are an underrated team with some scary offensive weapons.
Two of their losses have been of the "good" variety, a three-point heart-breaker against Oregon State and an overtime shootout at Stanford. UA's third loss, a 49-0 drubbing in Eugene, is the only ugly blemish on the Cats' resume (but the Ducks do that to everyone).
This game has the look of a must-win for the Bruins, especially if the Wildcats manage to topple the Trojans in the desert this weekend.
UCLA hasn't beaten Arizona since 2006 and was downright embarrassed last season in Tucson. The 48-12 loss, complete with benches-clearing brawl, was one of only three Wildcat victories in 2011. The Bruins will definitely be out for a little revenge, this time in the friendly confines of the Rose Bowl.
Both teams boast a plethora of play-makers on offense, but the advantage on defense belongs to UCLA. Arizona's defense is among the most porous in the Pac-12, ranking No. 10 in rushing defense and No. 11 against the pass. The high-powered Bruin attack, which ranks third in the conference in total offense, should be able to put plenty of points on the board.
But that doesn't mean UCLA will cruise to a win.
If the Bruins want to outdraw the Cats in a shootout, their defense will need to hold off an equally explosive offense.
Led by senior QB Matt Scott, Arizona has put up massive numbers this season, ranking first in the Pac-12 in total offense and pass offense. And aside from the shutout at Oregon, the Wildcats have been able to score with ease every week. Couple that with the question marks in UCLA's secondary, and the outcome could be bad for the Bruins.
This game will be a slugfest. There will be a lot of big plays for both teams, and the stat sheets will fill up quickly.
I'm tempted to buy into Arizona because of Scott's command under center, but the Cats will be worn down from a date with USC in Week 9. I think the Bruins, on their home turf, will do just enough defensively to eke out the win.
At Washington State, Nov. 10
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The first year of Mike Leach's tenure at Washington State University hasn't gone quite as planned, but that doesn't mean the Cougars are cupcakes.
When UCLA travels to Pullman on Nov. 10, Wazzu may be sitting with a 2-7 record after losing consecutive road games to Stanford and Utah, but the Cougs will be ready to play for their home crowd.
The Bruins, meanwhile, could be peeking ahead to the bout with USC and a shot at the Pac-12 South title. After all, WSU currently ranks No. 10 in the Pac-12 in total defense, No. 10 in pass defense and No. 11 in rush defense. Those are definitely the kind of bottom-feeder numbers that make the Cougars easy to overlook.
Factor in the inclement November weather on the Palouse, and you have all the makings of a trap game for UCLA. If the Bruins come out flat and uninspired, Washington State will be ready and waiting to take advantage.
UCLA has won the last four meetings with WSU, including a 28-25 squeaker last season at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins also won the last time they played in Pullman, rolling the Cougs 43-7 despite snowy conditions in 2009.
While I don't expect much trouble for the UCLA offense at Martin Stadium, the Bruins could easily trip up on defense against Wazzu's potent passing attack. And if this game turns into a good old-fashioned barnburner, the scale could tip towards the Pirate and his Air Raid offensive assault.
Led by QB Jeff Tuel and explosive WR Marquess Wilson, the Cougs can gain a lot of yards in a hurry, and they aren't afraid to test the deep ball. Given UCLA's woes against the pass this season, it'd be no surprise to see Wazzu drop a bomb on the Bruins.
Unfortunately for Washington State fans, I just don't think that is going to happen. Jim Mora will have his team focused and ready to go, as his mantra all year has been "one game at a time." The Bruin offense will score plenty of points, and the defense will be able to drop everyone back in coverage, unfazed by an anemic ground attack that ranks No. 123 in the nation.
UCLA will be victorious in its final regular season road game, setting up an epic clash with the Men of Troy for the South division crown.
Southern Cal, Nov. 17
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For the first time since 2002, the USC vs. UCLA game is not the season finale for either team. And for the first time in even longer, the Battle for Los Angeles will have national relevance.
The football rivalry has been awfully one-sided of late, as the Trojans have won 11 of the last 12 years, including a 50-0 dismantling in 2011.
But the Bruins have a new coach, an athletic dual-threat quarterback and a renewed energy in 2012. And they could also have a clear shot at a conference title when their hated rivals come to the Rose Bowl on Nov. 17.
The biggest story in this game will be the play of the UCLA secondary against Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
Last season, the Trojan trio gashed the Bruin defense for 423 yards passing and six touchdowns. Barkley was ridiculously efficient, completing over 83 percent of his throws (35-of-42) against the inaugural Pac-12 South "Champions."
In that game, UCLA was stagnant on offense to say the least. The Bruins managed to roll up 385 yards with only one turnover, but they simply couldn't find pay dirt against the Trojans' swarming red zone defense. The result was an embarrassing blowout loss that was over by halftime.
But it's a new year, and the Bruins are a different team. QB Brett Hundley has shown great command of the UCLA offense this season, and he will undoubtedly be itching to line up against USC in Pasadena. Unfortunately for those that bleed Blue and Gold, the Trojans aren't a different team.
Southern California hasn't skipped a beat on defense, ranking near the top of the Pac-12 in scoring defense (No. 2), total defense (No. 3), rush defense (No. 3), interceptions (No. 2) and sacks (No. 2). And as great as Hundley has been, he is still a freshman being protected by an inexperienced offensive line.
This game will be much closer than previous seasons, and it may even stay competitive into the fourth quarter.
But in the end, UCLA doesn't have enough speed on defense to handle the Trojans' aerial onslaught. With the win, USC will claim the top spot in the Pac-12 South and paint the Victory Bell red for another year.
Stanford, Nov. 24
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After a disheartening loss to USC and elimination from the conference title hunt, the Bruins will need to avoid an emotional hangover when they take the field against Stanford in the season finale.
The Nov. 24 showdown will be a major challenge for UCLA, as the Cardinal play the most physical brand of football in the Pac-12. The Bruins will still have plenty to play for, vying for position in the bowl-game pecking order.
Stanford has dominated UCLA recently, winning three straight games, including a 45-19 laugher on the Farm last season. But those Cardinal teams all boasted NFL talent Andrew Luck under center, a comfort that the 2012 squad doesn't have. Junior QB Josh Nunes has done a serviceable job filing in for Luck, but the Stanford offense just isn't the same these days.
The Bruin defenders will have a much better chance corralling the Cardinal at the Rose Bowl this year, but that doesn't mean it'll be easy.
After facing pass-happy spread schemes for weeks on end in the Pac-12, UCLA will need to zone in on Stanford's run-first, pro-style attack.
Led by a strong push from a beastly offensive line, the Cardinal has amassed major yardage on the ground. Senior RB Stepfan Taylor has the skills of a scat back with the body of a bruiser, making highlight reel jukes every single week.
But that might actually be good news for the Bruins. UCLA is much better at run-stopping than defending the pass and should be able to stack the box with a bevy of blitzing linebackers.
If the secondary can lock up Nunes' check-down routes, UCLA could improve on its already impressive sack and TFL numbers.
The real challenge for the Bruins in this one will be a nasty Cardinal defense that ranks No. 1 in the conference against the rush. Considering how much UCLA relies on the ground game to churn up yards, the matchup could be just what Stanford needs to pull out a win.
If the Bruins can get it going on offense and avoid costly turnovers, I think they have enough talent in the front seven to limit the Cardinal offense. Because Stanford will be coming off back-to-back games against Oregon State and Oregon, UCLA will have the upper hand.
The Bruins will knock off the Cardinal in nail-biting fashion and earn a bid to a mid-tier Pac-12 bowl.
Jim Mora has done a great job in his first season in Westwood, but the Bruins are still a year away from besting the Trojans in the Pac-12 South. Give Hundley and his young O-line one more season to mature and learn Noel Mazzone's offense. UCLA will contend for it all in 2013.