"Expectations." It's a popular word around UCLA football right now.
With the most experienced and largest returning starting corps in the Pac-12 and the momentum of a 10-win season, the Bruins have high expectations for their 2014 campaign.
A second Pac-12 South Championship in Jim Mora's brief tenure as head coach is a realistic expectation, albeit somewhat short of the grandeur quarterback Brett Hundley expresses in the trailer for Pac-12 Networks' The Drive. Hundley mentions playing in a Rose Bowl and pursuing a national championship.
Indeed, the program's first conference championship since 1998 is one expectation the team has not shied away from discussing.
"We feel like we've taken another step up," Mora told Dan Greenspan of the Associated Press.
Taking another step last season meant winning 10 games, a program-best since 2005. In the coming season, another step means joining college football's elite.
Doing so won't be easy. UCLA plays one of the more difficult schedules in the Pac-12, drawing each of the North Division's top three teams from a year ago: Oregon, Stanford and Washington.
Competing for the Pac-12 Championship means the Bruins must go 2-1 against their divisional competition to ensure that they lock up the South Division.
Competing for a national championship means securing an invitation to the inaugural College Football Playoff. A Pac-12 Championship might seem like a golden ticket into the tournament, though the formula may not be that simple.
Stanford won back-to-back conference titles in 2012 and 2013, sporting two losses each season. The Cardinal were ranked No. 6 in the final BCS standings of 2012 and No. 5 last year.
Thus, precedent suggests anything worse than a one-loss season will have the Bruins on the outside of the College Football Playoff looking in. Should UCLA go 2-1 against the North, it must then run the table against Arizona, Arizona State, Texas and USC—teams that won a combined 36 games in 2013.
Star players will be crucial to UCLA's pursuit of a championship, but not burdening them too much with expectations is of equal importance.
Consider sophomore linebacker Myles Jack. His star turn as a two-way playmaker last season earned him Pac-12 Defensive and Offensive Freshman of the Year, but this year presents Mora and his staff with a dilemma.
Jack is central to the Bruins meeting their expectations, so striking the right balance between his defensive and offensive contributions is a delicate act. Mora explained this on the May 1 teleconference call:
I don't plan on minimizing him. He's a really good football player and we're going to get him the ball in as many ways as we can, but we don't want to ever take away from what he means to our defense because he's a truly special linebacker.
Jack played offense exclusively in the Bruins' 38-33 loss to Arizona State. While the UCLA offense needed his presence at running back, the defensive void was evident in the first half. The Sun Devils blindsided the Bruins with 35 first-half points and built a gap UCLA never quite bridged.
The loss cost UCLA a second straight Pac-12 South Championship.
"We'll never do that again," Mora said of using Jack exclusively on offense.
Jack again excelling as a two-way player is a realistic expectation—just within moderation.
"As far as my running back role, it'll come down to situations. We have good running backs," Jack said. "Coach Mora views me as a defensive player, so he's going to make sure my offense doesn't sacrifice my defensive production."
In much the same way Mora and his staff cannot rely too heavily on Jack, the same is true for Hundley. The redshirt junior quarterback is indeed the catalyst of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's uptempo scheme, but is at his most effective with another standout helping to shoulder the load.
Hundley rushed for a team-leading 748 yards in 2013 and also passed for 3,071 yards.
His run output more than doubled from 2012, a byproduct of the same circumstances that forced Jack onto the offensive side. Conversely, Hundley passed for almost 700 fewer yards than in his freshman campaign.
Hundley's rushing stats may drop in 2014 if a consistent No. 1 running back emerges, but there's plenty of room to produce even gaudier passing numbers.
With a deep receiving corps and another year of experience under his belt, more effective passing from Hundley isn't just a possibility—it should be an expectation.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.
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