UCLA Football: 5 Games That Will Define Bruins in 2014
With championship aspirations and a veteran roster, UCLA embarks on an especially intriguing 2014 season.
Head coach Jim Mora's first two seasons at UCLA produced 19 combined wins and inspired confidence throughout the program. That confidence will be put to the test next season against one of the most formidable schedules in college football.
UCLA opens on the other side of the country against power-conference foe Virginia, takes on Texas in a neutral-field contest that will be anything but, then goes up against the top three finishers from the Pac-12 North in cross-divisional competition.
If the Bruins are to compete for the program's first national championship in 60 years, they will indeed have earned it on the field.
Five games in particular will map out UCLA's title destiny.
Sept. 13, vs. Texas (in Arlington, Texas)
Texas has particular significance on the recruiting scene. To that end, Mora is working to establishing inroads from UCLA into the Lone Star State.
A star of the Bruins' 2014 signing class, 4-star linebacker Zach Whitley, is a product of North Shore High School in Houston. Among the Bruins' 2015 targets, according to 247Sports.com, are 4-star athlete Chris Warren of Rockwall, Texas; 3-star quarterback Chason Virgil from West Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas; and 4-star wide receiver Ryan Newsome of Aledo, Texas.
Nothing could plant the UCLA flag in Texas quite like a win there, especially one against arguably the state's most recognizable program.
Texas will be early into its transition to the Charlie Strong regime. Strong was hired to replace longtime Longhorns head coach Mack Brown in January and brings a hard-nosed approach that produced 23 wins in the last two seasons at Louisville.
Marquee nonconference wins over Nebraska each of the last two seasons propelled the Bruins to nine and 10 wins. A similar such victory is a necessary foundation to UCLA's championship goals in 2014.
Sept. 25, at Arizona State
Each of the two meetings between Arizona State and UCLA since Todd Graham and Mora arrived at those programs has come down to the wire.
Each time, the winner went on to claim the Pac-12 South championship.
Arizona State denied UCLA's bid for a second consecutive divisional title last year with an early onslaught in the Rose Bowl. The Bruins' second-half rally effort fell short, but the loss gave them a measuring stick for the future, which Mora addressed afterward, via UCLABruins.com:
...There's something growing around here that's going to be special. It's not there yet, but it's growing. I'm proud of them. I'm honored to be their coach. I'm lucky to be the coach of UCLA, I'm excited about the future of this program. We came up short tonight, but the fight we exhibited that's what we're going to grow from, that's what we're going to build off. That's what I believe. That's what we're going to emphasize.
UCLA has an early opportunity to demonstrate how much it's grown since that Nov. 23, 2013 encounter, as Arizona State will be its first Pac-12 opponent of the season.
Oct. 11, vs. Oregon
"We have to get to the point where we do the things on a consistent basis that championship teams do and we’re not there yet. We are trying desperately to get there," Mora said in his postgame press conference following the Bruins' 42-14 loss at Oregon on Oct. 26, 2013, per GoDucks.com.
For a half in that contest, UCLA showed its ability to play with a championship-caliber team by forcing a 14-14 tie heading into intermission. Oregon overwhelmed the young Bruins in the second half, however, and won in a rout.
The Ducks provide this more seasoned version of the Bruins with an early barometer of their championship mettle. This is also a potential Heisman Trophy showdown, as quarterbacks Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota are two of the early candidates for the 2014 installment of the award.
But while the quarterbacks will understandably take center stage, the real storyline at play could be the rush defense. Stopping the run was at times an issue for both these teams in 2013. Against Oregon, UCLA gave up 325 yards on the ground.
Oregon's multifaceted run game will test the UCLA defensive front, which replaces standout defensive end Cassius Marsh and linebackers Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr.
Nov. 22, vs. USC
Rivalry matchups are of importance in any college football program. At UCLA and USC, where the two programs share a city, the significance of a rivalry-game win is magnified.
"L.A. loves a winner," linebacker and running back Myles Jack said at the April 28 launch for Pac-12 Networks' series The Drive.
Add a championship element with both the Bruins and Trojans likely competing for the Pac-12 South in 2014, and the situation is downright combustible.
UCLA boasts a short, albeit meaningful win streak over USC currently, with wins in the last two meetings. Jack said that winning those games was not only beneficial for UCLA but also how it did so.
"I'm seeing a lot more UCLA Bruins stuff than I have in the past. More people are starting to take notice (of UCLA)," Jack said.
Each was emphatic, decided by double-digit margins. Last year, the Bruins dominated en route to a 35-14 final score that, along with their blowout of Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl, help set the expectations for the coming season.
This year's UCLA-USC matchup will help determine if the Bruins met those expectations.
Nov. 28, vs. Stanford
On a rain-soaked, late-November night in 2012, Stanford survived a scare from upstart UCLA to win the Pac-12 Conference championship, 27-24.
Mora said in the postgame press conference, via ASAPSports.com, that the Bruins exceeded expectations and were just laying the foundation for more.
"We've got a lot of work to do to become the team that we want to be," he said.
Stanford just might be the ultimate hurdle between UCLA and its goal of winning a conference title.
The 2014 regular-season finale will be the fourth meeting between the programs in 24 months. For perspective on just how frequently these two teams have met, by the time the Cardinal visit the Rose Bowl on Nov. 28, Stanford will have accounted for roughly 15 percent of the Bruins' schedule since their initial meeting on Nov. 24, 2012.
UCLA is probably sick of seeing Stanford, given the Cardinal won each of the previous three meetings.
However, the two-time defending Pac-12 champions are gatekeepers to the league's crown. Snapping the current skid could be the difference in appearing in the conference championship game the following weekend and watching it on television.