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UCLA Football: How Will Bruins Handle High Expectations in 2014?

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UCLA Football: How Will Bruins Handle High Expectations in 2014?
Alex Gallardo

The program's first 10-win finish and highest end-of-season ranking in almost a decade, combined with the bevy of talent returning, have expectations set high at UCLA in 2014.

"There's something growing around here that's going to be special," Mora said after UCLA's 38-33 loss to division champion Arizona State on Nov. 23, 2013, per UCLABruins.com. "It's not there yet, but it's growing."

Coinciding with the growth of that "something" are high hopes for the 2014 Bruins—both outside of and within the program. 

"There are a lot of expectations, but our expectations are probably higher than most individuals have on us from the outside looking in," quarterback Brett Hundley told the Associated Press at the beginning of spring practice last week.

That's saying a lot, because UCLA is a fashionable pick for the preseason top-10 after finishing last season ranked No. 16 in the final AP Top 25. 

Hundley is a primary reason for the ambitious goals. Hundley's shown more than just flashes of greatness in his two years as UCLA's starting quarterback, racking up almost 7,000 yards passing and more than 1,100 yards rushing in that time.  

But he has also been prone to lapses in production. Sustaining those stretches when he looks like one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation is key to UCLA fulfilling its promise. 

Head coach Jim Mora said, per the Associated Press, that Hundley working with a group that includes San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers has had notable impact on the redshirt junior's performance. 

It's only one practice, but he looked fantastic today. Spending time with NFL guys has really helped him. Just the mindset, the dedication, the commitment that it takes to be great is very clear to him now.

Hundley leads the most veteran starting contingent in the Pac-12, another key component of the 2014 outlook. His progression is tied to the maturation of an offensive line that Mora told reporters "really impressed" him through the first week of practices, via the Orange County Register. 

But while the Bruins don't lose much, what they do is significant. 

Linebackers Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr leave tremendous voids in a corps that was central to the Bruins defense. UCLA has a new coordinator on that side of the ball in Jeff Ulbrich, and replacing Barr and Zumwalt is among his more pressing duties this offseason. 

The entire front seven is integrating new blood in key spots during spring workouts. Cassius Marsh left one spot on the defensive line to be filled, and talented youngster Eddie Vanderdoes is currently nursing a broken foot, as Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times reported via Twitter.  

Inexperience and injury have challenged both of Mora's UCLA teams, but he said in a teleconference call following an October 2013 loss at Oregon, that the goal was to build off of those tribulations. 

"You've got to learn the lessons that were taught in the losses and apply them going forward," Mora said. "You just turn the page, but you learn the lessons as you turn the page." 

Mora's arrival before the 2012 season sparked renewed confidence and enthusiasm around the program that manifested in a divisional championship his first season. Reaching another benchmark in his second year begs the question: What's next? 

How will UCLA finish 2014?

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The 2014 season is important for both Mora and the program. UCLA is parlaying its brief, albeit promising success into a long-term vision. Meeting the lofty expectations inherent with a talented, veteran team and strong finish the year prior is crucial to continuing the program's forward momentum. 

Last year's culmination is greater cause for hope in 2014 than simply reaching 10 wins on its own. The Bruins routed rival USC to cap the regular season then blasted perennial ACC contender Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. 

That finish was a stark contrast to the end of 2012, when UCLA dropped three straight to close out Mora's debut season, including a 49-26 rout at the Holiday Bowl. 

The thud with which the Bruins concluded that season is indicative of a hurdle that they still must clear. UCLA avoids slip-ups against the teams it should beat, but breaking through against top-tier competition is the next step. 

UCLA gets both Oregon and Stanford at home, and the former is an early-season matchup that could shape the entire course of the Bruins' championship pursuit. 

 

Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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