Oddsmakers seem to like UCLA's potential for the upcoming 2014 college football season. But even so, the experts have the Bruins just outside the top four—the magic number necessary to gain entry into the field of the College Football Playoff.
Via Jerry Hinnen of CBSSports.com, UCLA is one of nine teams on which Bovada posted odds to reach the first Playoff. The Bruins face the worst odds of the nine at 12/5.
Behind the tone set by head coach Jim Mora and the play of Heisman Trophy contender Brett Hundley at quarterback, UCLA is both trendy and smart as a pick to beat the odds and make the field.
Championship talk is not something the Bruins are shying away from, because as Hundley explained, they buy into the work they're putting in to reach that goal.
"Nobody sees what we do at 6 o'clock in the morning or 6 o'clock at night," Hundley said. "It's a process."
For Hundley, a key part of the process is improving his pocket presence, reading through his progressions before resorting to the rush. He took 16 sacks in the Bruins' three losses in 2013—44 percent of the No. 109-nationally ranked 36 total sacks UCLA gave up all season.
Defending divisional champions Arizona State and Stanford were responsible for nine and four of those sacks respectively. The Cardinal are again on the Bruins' cross-division docket, and UCLA travels to Arizona State in a rematch of last year's de facto Pac-12 South title tilt.
The third team responsible for a UCLA loss in 2013 was Oregon. The Ducks are tabbed at even odds to qualify for the College Football Playoff, per Bovada.
Oregon used a key fumble on a Tony Washington strip of Hundley to gain momentum in the Ducks' 42-14 defeat of the Bruins last October. This year, Oregon visits the Rose Bowl in an early-season showdown that could be a Pac-12 Championship Game preview.
The Oregon game was UCLA's first with a trio of true freshmen starting together on the offensive line. Joining Alex Redmond, a season-long starter, to face the Ducks were Scott Quessenberry and Caleb Benenoch.
Their combined maturation, along with the return of Simon Goines from injury and the addition of Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche, should greatly improve the line's consistency—and thus Hundley's productivity.
Gaining more confidence and consistency in the backfield is more than about eliminating sacks for Hundley. As Bleacher Report's Darren Page demonstrates below from game film against Arizona, Hundley's tendency to scramble before going through all of his progressions sometimes prevented UCLA from breaking open the big play.
Hundley reverses field on a scramble, doesn't look up to find options. Eats it for a two yard gain. pic.twitter.com/YaXJsIbbWD— Darren Page (@DarrenPage15) June 3, 2014
Hundley should put up some monster passing numbers in his third year leading the Bruins offense, so long as he takes that next step forward in his development. And as he goes, so goes UCLA in its pursuit of a Playoff berth.
An experienced defensive line and one of the more talented secondaries in the Pac-12 key the Bruins defense, but central to their Playoff pursuit is the development of the linebacking corps.
Breakout star Myles Jack returns, but UCLA lost Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr—fixtures of the defense in the last two seasons—to the NFL.
But Mora said on the May 1 Pac-12 coaches' teleconference call that he sees high potential and depth in this unit.
We're expected about the guys that are here. Eric Kendricks is a two-year returning starter and a great football player. We've got some younger guys step up: Kenny Orjioke...Aaron Wallace...Deon Hollins...Isaako Savaiinaea on the inside. Cameron Judge. Brought in a number of talented, talented recruits: A kid called Kenny Young from Louisiana, and a young man named Zach Whitley from Houston...We're real excited about our linebacking corps. We've got depth and we've got talent.
That group will certainly play a big role in UCLA beating the College Football Playoff odds, as stopping the run will have to be a point of emphasis throughout 2014.
Though the Bruins' rush defense was far from inadequate in 2013, there is significant room for improvement. Three of their worst performances against the run last season came against—you guessed it—Arizona State (223 yards) and Oregon (325 yards).
While UCLA contained Stanford to 192 total rushing yards, running back Tyler Gaffney brutalized the Bruins front seven with 171 yards.
UCLA has a clear road map to the College Football Playoff, and the Bruins know their potential detours—but navigating that path successfully should lead them on the way to beating the odds.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.