In the Pac-12, both Oregon and Stanford are flying high heading into the 2014 season. Meanwhile, the UCLA Bruins, coming off a 10-3 season, are buzzing the trees and under the radar waiting to push up, into the national spotlight with a College Football Playoff run. With its quarterback returning and Jim Mora calling the shots, UCLA should be on everyone's short list of contenders.
Being in contention starts with quarterback Brett Hundley. The rising redshirt junior brings an elite physical package and skill set back to Westwood and that should put Bruins' minds at ease. While Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are drawing the early talk for the 2015 NFL draft's top choice, the versatile Hundley should use 2014 to play his way into the top 10 of the draft as well.
To climb into the very top of the draft, Hundley has to improve his decision making, as indecisive play was at the core of his struggles in 2013. The starter heading to his third year at the helm has to get better at making up his mind and trusting his decisions. If he is going to pull the ball down and run, no need to hesitate. Simply take off for the sticks and the same goes for where he wants to throw the ball. No more double clutching to give defenders time to break on the ball.
The improvements will not only push Hundley up draft boards, but they will put UCLA in a better position to succeed against Oregon and Stanford; two teams looming on the Bruins' schedule. It is not just Hundley who returns, the skill and lines both are set with experience returning and the Bruins should put ample points on the board.
Shaq Evans, a wide receiver and Xavier Su'a-Filo, an offensive linemen, are both headed to the NFL, but the Bruins are ready to replace their experience. Along the line five players return with starting experience ready to fill in and open holes for Mora's team. Three rising junior receivers, Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien, also return to pick up where Evans left off.
With Jordan James and Paul Perkins back at the running back position, Hundley should be able to lighten his load by focusing on moving the ball down the field with his arm.
Offense is not the only reason to pencil UCLA in as a contender, the defense returns plenty of pieces talented enough to get the critical stops a playoff run would require. As linebackers Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt and defensive end Cassius Marsh transition to the NFL, Mora's defense will look for youth to step up.
The secondary returns all four starters, plus players like Tahaan Goodman and Priest Willis who entered as highly touted recruits now looking to get more critical minutes. Eric Kendricks returns to set the tone for the entire defense at the linebacker spot and Myles Jack brings his skills back for a sophomore campaign.
Mora, through his development and recruiting, is building a strong team in the Pac-12. He is building a unit with depth on both lines, quality skill players all led by a quarterback he believes can be a Heisman candidate.
The early years of a coach's tenure are critical for his long-term success. Last season saw the coach push into the double-digit win atmosphere, and now, with a great core returning, 2014 should be about taking that next step as a contender. For UCLA, that means pushing for a Pac-12 championship and finding a way into the playoff.
Mora has a team just out of the national discussion set to make a run for major success. With Hundley at the helm and plenty of talent surrounding the quarterback, the Bruins should certainly make this preseason's short list of possible playoff teams.