UCLA Football: Power Ranking Bruins' 2014 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest
Reaching the championship heights to which UCLA aspires in 2014 means navigating one of the most difficult schedules in college football.
Head coach Jim Mora leads the Bruins in a slate that features two power-conference opponents in the nonconference portion, as well as each of the top three finishers from the Pac-12 North a season ago in cross-divisional play.
With the top-to-bottom strength the Pac-12 exhibited last year only expected to solidify more in 2014, the Bruins' schedule embodies the cliche of "no weeks off."
12. Sept. 6 vs. Memphis
Memphis is turning a corner with head coach Justin Fuente at the helm, but the Tigers still have a climb to return to the respectability achieved in the mid-2000s.
And, as tough as UCLA's 2014 schedule is, a much improved Memphis team is still the weakest opponent on the docket.
That doesn't mean the Tigers are without playmakers. Defensive end Martin Ifedi was one of the nation's leaders in sacks a season ago, racking up 10.5. Containing him off the edge will be a point of emphasis for an offensive line that ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 for sacks surrendered a year ago.
11. Oct. 18 at Cal
On its last visit to Berkeley, California, UCLA suffered the most confounding loss of the Mora era. The Golden Bears routed the Bruins 43-17 in 2012—a lowlight of UCLA's run to the Pac-12 South championship and highlight in the otherwise dismal end of the Jeff Tedford era at Cal.
Sonny Dykes is now the head coach of the Golden Bears, coming off an abysmal debut campaign. Injuries and inexperience doomed Cal to a 1-11 finish in 2013 without a win over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
There's nowhere to go but up for the Golden Bears, and talented sophomore quarterback Jared Goff should improve in his second season operating the bear-raid offense. Goff also has a deep receiving corps with which to operate, including Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler.
However, losing three starters to early entry in the NFL draft further depletes a defense already coming off a historically rocky campaign.
The experience gap between these two teams is wide. Expect UCLA to have no trouble exacting a measure of revenge for its loss here two years ago.
10. Aug. 30 at Virginia
Head coach Mike London is on the hot seat entering 2014, so starting off with a strong showing against a UCLA team likely to be ranked in the preseason Top 10 is a must for Virginia.
The Cavaliers twice hosted Western opponents last season. One resulted in a defensive grind and upset of Brigham Young, the other saw UCLA's Pac-12 counterpart Oregon nearly hang 60 points.
Dictating tempo is key against a Virginia squad that has plenty of defensive talent, but has struggled to find an offensive identity. Exploiting that weakness is a key for the Bruins defense, which should be able to harass young starting quarterback Greyson Lambert.
9. Oct. 25 at Colorado
Once the talent and attitude at Colorado come together to match head coach Mike MacIntyre's vision, the Buffaloes will be one of the most difficult Pac-12 teams to face on the road—particularly late in the season, as UCLA does this year.
MacIntyre restored Colorado to a level of respectability in his first season, but the program still has a long climb to contend with the top of the conference.
Before their meeting in the Rose Bowl last November, Mora offered high praise for young Buffaloes quarterback Sefo Liufau. Mora said on an October 2013 teleconference call Liufau impressed him as a high schooler, and the UCLA coach praised the Colorado quarterback's potential.
Luifau is operating without star wide receiver Paul Richardson, who opted for early entry in the NFL draft.
8. Oct. 4 vs. Utah
Last year's Thursday night showdown between the Bruins and Utes in Rice-Eccles Stadium was a wild affair that featured six UCLA interceptions, quarterback Brett Hundley catching a touchdown pass from wide receiver Devin Fuller and a narrow escape for the visitors.
The Utes are better than their 5-7 record would indicate. Utah's grinding defensive style can turn any game into a slugfest, and injuries derailed its path back to the postseason.
That aggressive defense, led by a front seven featuring end Nate Orchard and linebacker Jason Whittingham, should provide the Bruins with an early test in the Pac-12 slate.
7. Nov. 1 vs. Arizona
Arizona found itself on the wrong end of two of UCLA's defining moments in the last two seasons. The Bruins blasted the Wildcats in the Rose Bowl, 66-10 in 2012. Last year's meeting in Tucson, Arizona, was the coming-out party of Myles Jack as a two-way star.
Expect a contest much more similar to last year's than the 56-point beating UCLA gave Arizona in 2012. The Wildcats defense improved by leaps and bounds in coordinator Jeff Casteel's second year, and an influx of talent on the recruiting trail has given it more depth.
Arizona features a receiving corps with depth matching that of UCLA. By Nov. 1, the murky quarterback situation should be long since sorted.
This could be a pivotal contest in the Pac-12 South race—although the same is true for numerous dates on a difficult schedule.
6. Sept. 13 vs. Texas (in Arlington, Texas)
UCLA is effectively on the road for its nonconference clash with Texas. Yes, AT&T Stadium is technically a neutral venue for this marquee clash of Pac-12 and Big 12 foes, but the Bruins are stepping into a sea of burnt orange.
Mora makes no bones about his team embracing such challenges. Last year, UCLA went into Nebraska's Memorial Stadium and routed the Cornhuskers. On paper, this matchup has a similar feel.
Texas head coach Charlie Strong is in his first season, trying to reestablish the Longhorns as national powers. Texas is not exactly bereft of talent, but putting it all together is the challenge Strong faces, and he's certainly behind Mora in that process.
The Longhorns have the size and ability on the defensive front to challenge Hundley, making this game the first true measuring of the Bruins offensive line.
5. Nov. 22 vs. USC
New life has been injected into the Crosstown Showdown. After wins in 12 of 13 meetings from 1999 through 2011, the Bruins have taken the last two. The winds of change have blown across Los Angeles with the force of the Santa Anas.
As Myles Jack explained to me in an interview in April: "L.A. loves a winner."
This year's meeting in the Rose Bowl should be about more than claiming bragging rights in Los Angeles—the winner will also have the inside track in the Pac-12 South title race.
The 2014 installment also marks the first with Steve Sarkisian at the helm of the Trojans. Sarkisian is introducing a hurry-up offense at USC similar to that which UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone runs.
The new system should maximize the potential of USC running back Javorius "Buck" Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor, two of the top talents in the Pac-12.
4. Sept. 25 at Arizona State
Each of the last two UCLA-Arizona State encounters came down to the final possession, and each winner went on to claim the Pac-12 South championship. Add the recent history between these two ascending programs to a Thursday night kickoff, and it equates to the recipe for something wildly entertaining.
Arizona State hit UCLA with an early barrage in last year's 38-33 Sun Devils win, and held on thanks to some defensive heroics in the final Bruins possession. Gone from that team are backfield terrors Will Sutton and Carl Bradford. Bradford returned an interception for a touchdown in the Arizona State win.
The Sun Devils are completely revamping the defense, but the offense is loaded with playmakers. Taylor Kelly is one of the conference's top quarterbacks, and running back D.J. Foster is an explosive jack-of-all-trades. Wide receiver Jaelen Strong is a big, athletic target, primed for an All-American caliber season.
A repeat of the offensive eruption these two had in their 2012 encounter could be in the works on a Thursday night in the desert.
3. Nov. 28 vs. Stanford
Stanford has been something of a thorn in UCLA's side. The Bruins dropped three decisions between November 2012 and October 2013. The most recent loss was last year's anemic offensive performance on The Farm, wherein the Cardinal defensive front made life miserable for Hundley.
Solving the Cardinal's tenacious defense is key not only to the Bruins snapping their recent skid against this in-state rival, but also establishing themselves as contenders in the conference. Stanford is the Pac-12's two-time defending champion, using that aggressive defensive approach to counteract the proliferation of uptempo offenses like UCLA's seen around the conference.
Though it loses standout linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, returning A.J. Tarpley and defensive linemen David Parry and Harry Anderson means Stanford will again be one of the premier defensive teams in the nation.
Stanford also promises to have an improved offense. Kevin Hogan enters his second full year as starting quarterback and has a talented receiving corps working with him. Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste complement each other well.
2. Nov. 8 at Washington
Washington is a tough opponent. Inside the confines of Husky Stadium, Washington is one of the most difficult Pac-12 foes to upend.
The Huskies have just three losses at home in the last three years, whether playing at Husky Stadium or CenturyLink Field. Rival Oregon accounts for two of those defeats.
In 2012, Washington knocked off Top 10-ranked opponents Stanford and Oregon State before its raucous, pro-Huskies crowd. Adding UCLA, another potential Top 10 victim, would be a nice feather in the cap for first-year head coach Chris Petersen.
Of course, Washington won't rely just on its home-field advantage. The Huskies feature one of the most talented defenses in the Pac-12. Defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha is a terror, and tackle Danny Shelton is one of the top run-stuffers in the nation. Dynamic linebacker Shaq Thompson is the closest player to UCLA's own Myles Jack anywhere in college football.
1. Oct. 11 vs. Oregon
Following the Bruins' 42-14 loss at Oregon last October, Mora said the Ducks set a bar for his team to try to match as championship contenders.
"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," he said, per GoDucks.com. "We are trying desperately to get there and these kids are working their tails off.”
Oregon is perhaps the one true measuring stick of UCLA's progress in its championship aspirations. In 2014, the Ducks return a roster bursting at the seams with talent.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is a favorite to compete for the Heisman Trophy, the tandem backfield of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner is potent and the offensive line is experienced and stout.
A slightly new perspective on defense behind coordinator Don Pellum could mean a more aggressive approach, particularly from the front seven.
On paper, these are the top two teams in the Pac-12, and this showdown in the Rose Bowl may very well prove to be a Pac-12 Championship Game preview.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.