UCLA is sort of the Pac-12’s version of Texas A&M; what was once all new and shiny and run by a fun quarterback now becomes a weekly grind to find a way to win against highly motivated teams.
That weekly grind is an understatement.
This is what a BCS contender's schedule looks like (notable games are bolded):
- August 31: Nevada
- September 7: open
- September 14: at Nebraska
- September 21: New Mexico State
- September 28: open
- October 3: at Utah
- October 12: Cal
- October 19: at Stanford
- October 26: at Oregon
- November 2: Colorado
- November 9: at Arizona
- November 15: Washington
- November 23: Arizona State
- November 30: at USC
UCLA's schedule will probably be ranked among the 20 toughest this year. While that is probably not comforting for Bruin fans, it should be. Having a strong schedule impresses pollsters.
The 12-1 Oregon Ducks had a 10-0 record at one point last year but never held the No. 1 spot in the BCS polls. The reason was simple—their strength of schedule was softer than those of Big 12 or SEC teams ranked in the Top 10.
While the Ducks steamrolled their opponents—their one loss was by three points to Stanford—the computers were not impressed with their first six games. Neither were the pollsters.
UCLA will not have that problem this year. The Bruins will play eight teams that went bowling last season, including two BCS bowl winners. Ouch.
Opening with Nevada is not a cupcake. The Wolfpack lost 49-48 to Arizona in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl.
Following that with a road trip to Lincoln is also daunting. Under head coach Bo Pelini, the Nebraska Cornhuskers have lost only six games at home in the last five years. If UCLA were 3-0 by the end of September, it should be ranked highly.
The Bruins' back-to-back road trips in October—at Oregon and at Stanford—are brutal. Both of those teams won their respective BCS bowls last season. Oregon beat Kansas State 35-17 in the Fiesta Bowl and Stanford beat Wisconsin 20-14 in the Rose Bowl.
The BCS poll comes out in October, and if the Bruins beat the Cardinal and Ducks, they could see a huge boost in their ranking. But UCLA won't be just focused on its foes in the North.
The South has plenty of firepower.
USC is looking to erase that 7-6 2012 season. Both Arizona and Arizona State return prolific offenses. Utah hired former Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson as its co-offensive coordinator, so the Utes may surprise a few teams this fall. UCLA is only clear conference chalk against Colorado.
Still, UCLA remains in perfect position to make a title run. Its victories over Nebraska and USC last season won't be dismissed as flukes if it gets off to a 6-0 start.
How will UCLA finish in the regular season?
If the Bruins go 12-1 or 11-2, they should go BCS bowling even if they don't win the Pac-12 because their schedule demands respect.
Alabama's 2013 regular-season schedule includes only five 2012 bowl teams. The Tide did not draw Florida, South Carolina or Georgia from the SEC East.
We could also see some SEC fatigue from pollsters this year. If UCLA posts the same record as Alabama, the Bruins' schedule could propel them over Alabama. That is based on a lot of ifs. But if preseason team projections hold true, UCLA is in the driver's seat.
The Bruins' schedule is worthy of a berth in the BCS Championship game. Whether it helps or prevents them from playing in their home stadium on January 1 or 6 will be the compelling storyline of the 2013 season.