Year one of the Jim Mora era at UCLA brought nine wins and a divisional championship. Year two brought 10 wins. Year three opens Aug. 30 at Virginia with the Bruins ranked No. 7 in The Associated Press Top 25 and chasing the program's first Pac-12 title since 1998.
Also at stake is a potential berth in the College Football Playoff and shot at the program's first national championship since 1954.
There's plenty of chatter to that end emanating from outside sources, but Mora isn't focusing on it.
"Every day, our goal is to be the best we can be that day and come back the next day," the head coach said in July at Pac-12 media days. "That is the approach you have to take. If you look too far down the line or listen to what's going on outside, you make a mistake."
UCLA's 2014 season is about simultaneously blocking out and meeting high expectations. It's a challenging balancing act but one that will define the Bruins' season.
|2014 UCLA Bruins Coaching Staff|
|Title||Name||Years with Team|
|Head Coach||Jim Mora||3|
|Offensive Coordinator||Noel Mazzone||3|
|Defensive Coordinator/Inside Linebackers||Jeff Ulbrich||3|
|Assoc. Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line||Adrian Klemm||3|
|Asst. Head Coach/Passing Game Coordinator/Defensive Backs||Demetrice Martin||3|
|Recruiting Coordinator/Defensive Line||Angus McClure||8|
|Assistant Coach/Running Backs||Kennedy Polamalu||1|
|Assistant Coach/Wide Receivers||Eric Yarber||3|
|Director of Player Development/High School Relations||Courtney Morgan||2|
|Special Teams/Outside Linebackers||Mike Tuiasaosopo||1|
|Defensive Graduate Assistant||Dimetrius Hajimihalis||6|
|Director of Player Personnel||Patrick Girardi||6|
|Sal Alosi||Strength and Conditioning Coordinator||3|
UCLA made strides in each of Mora's first two seasons at the helm. He and his staff inherited a talented roster, as predecessor Rick Neuheisel recruited well.
Where Mora succeeded was tying that talent together and bringing a hard-nosed approach to the Bruins' play.
"He and I have a lot in common being...guys that want to play smashmouth, tough-guy football," Stanford head coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days. "And you've seen that come to fruition down in UCLA."
Coordinators Noel Mazzone and Jeff Ulbrich have been with Mora since the beginning. Mazzone's work with the offense has made UCLA one of the most explosive teams in the Pac-12 while Ulbrich is transitioning into a new role overseeing the defense.
Ulbrich may be new to his position, but he embodied the Bruins' physical attitude in the past seasons as linebackers coach.
"Coach Brick is a beast," linebacker Eric Kendricks said at Pac-12 media days. "His NFL experience and his IQ is wearing off on all of us."
What to Watch For on Offense
|UCLA Bruins 2014 Offensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Brett Hundley||Asiantii Woulard||Jerry Neuheisel|
|RB||Jordon James||Paul Perkins||Craig Lee|
|WR||Jordan Payton||Eldridge Massington|
|WR||Devin Lucien||Logan Sweet||Ahmaad Harris|
|WR||Devin Fuller||Jalen Ortiz||Darren Andrews|
|Y||Thomas Duarte||Tyler Scott||Daniel Fields|
|FB||Nate Iese||Tre Hale||Spencer Atkins|
|LT||Malcolm Bunche||Caleb Benenoch||Poasi Moala|
|LG||Ben Wysocki||Scott Quessenberry||Sam Tai|
|C||Jake Brendel||Scott Quessenberry||Carl Hulick|
|RG||Alex Redmond||Najee Toran||Kenny Lacy|
|RT||Caleb Benenoch||Connor McDermott||Simon Goines (inj.)|
|Bruin Sports Report, Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register|
All eyes are on UCLA redshirt junior quarterback Brett Hundley. Entering his third season as the Bruins starter, Hundley has commanded national attention—so much so that he's appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice in the last month.
Teammates have noticed all the attention paid to Hundley, too.
"Walk[ing] around campus, I'll yell out, 'Heisman candidate,' [or], 'Oh my God, is that Brett Hundley?'" linebacker and running back Myles Jack told me in April.
The spotlight is well-deserved. In his first two years, Hundley's been one of the nation's most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks.
As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Hundley passed for 3,740 yards. In his redshirt sophomore campaign, he ran for a team-high 748 yards.
The 2014 season is about putting those two qualities together at their peak levels. If he does that, Hundley will most definitely factor into the Heisman Trophy race.
He's working with a wide receiving corps that Eldridge Massington told me was best in the Pac-12 with "the best receivers coach" in Eric Yarber.
Hundley will have no shortage of options at which to pass to. Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton are the team's leading returners, and both are primed for monster seasons.
Devin Lucien suffered a scary injury at fall camp but returned to practice this week—just in time to get a photo taken with actor Denzel Washington.
When at full strength, Lucien will be the Bruins' man on fire in the deep passing attack.
The Bruins can also go to the air effectively via the backfield with running back Paul Perkins. Perkins caught 24 passes a season ago for 296 yards, fifth-most on the team.
UCLA's offensive challenge is two-fold. First is improved protection for Hundley from an offensive line that allowed 36 sacks a season ago.
The second facet is establishing a more consistent run game. Jordon James' injury early into 2013 derailed the Bruins' ground attack, forcing Hundley and Jack into the majority of ball-carrying duties down the stretch.
What to Watch for on Defense
|2014 UCLA Bruins Defensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DE||Owamage Odighizuwa||Matt Dickerson||Zach Vinci|
|DT||Kenny Clark||Ellis McCarthy|
|DT||Eddie Vanderdoes||Eli Ankou|
|LB||Kenny Orjioke||Aaron Wallace||Deon Hollins|
|LB||Myles Jack||Deon Hollins|
|LB||Eric Kendricks||Isaako Savaiinaea||Zach Whitley|
|LB||Kenny Young||Ryan Hofmeister|
|S||Randall Goforth||Jaleel Wadood||Tyler Foreman|
|S||Anthony Jefferson||Tahaan Goodman|
|CB||Ishmael Adams||Priest Willis|
|CB||Fabian Moreau||Marcus Rios||John Johnson|
|Bruin Sports Report, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register|
Ulbrich takes over a talented defense from Lou Spanos, who took the linebackers coach position with the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
Kendricks said the change "hasn't been rocky at all."
Ulbrich spent the last two seasons coaching UCLA's fearsome linebackers corps, which produced first-round NFL draft pick Anthony Barr and breakout star Jack.
The same ferocity he emphasized for his linebackers is an attitude Ulbrich now brings to the entire defense.
The Bruins have toyed with more nickel and dime formations to counter the Pac-12's many spread offenses.
One of the tweaks to look for with Ulbrich taking over is Jack roaming the field with a bit more freedom. The sensational sophomore did some of that in the Bruins' spring game, but he should have even more autonomy in 2014 to both blitz and drop back into pass coverage.
Jack's versatility was on full display a season ago when he stepped up as the Bruins' leading rusher in the final month. He'll continue to play two ways in 2014, albeit in a limited capacity, which will allow him to do what he does best—make plays at linebacker.
The defensive line is among the Pac-12's most talented. Kenny Clark was a breakout performer a season ago, making 14 of his 29 tackles in the Bruins' final four games.
Eddie Vanderdoes played a prominent role in his true freshman campaign but missed much of the offseason with a foot injury. Despite the layoff, Vanderdoes seems to be acclimating to Ulbrich's tweaks well, as he told the Orange County Register's Ryan Kartje.
"The new defense really puts me and us as a front in better positions to make plays," Vanderdoes said. "It's so much better. I love being a [3-technique defensive tackle]. I've always loved being a 3. That's my natural position.
Perhaps the biggest potential impact player along the Bruins defensive front is Owamagbe Odighizuwa. He missed the entire 2013 season due to injury but is coming back in a big way.
|UCLA Bruins Injuries|
|Player||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|Simon Goines||Ankle||Week 3|
|Los Angeles Times|
Offensive lineman Simon Goines has been snakebit recently. He broke his leg in the regular-season finale of 2013 and this month underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle.
Fortunately for UCLA, it should get Goines back into the lineup early in the season. Other injuries sustained up and down the roster throughout fall camp were also minor.
An element missing from UCLA's offense that made a world of difference the season before was a big receiving target—someone Hundley could rely on each time the Bruins were in the red zone.
In 2012, that was tight end Joseph Fauria. More than a quarter of Fauria's 45 receptions that season went for touchdowns—12, to be exact.
He's taken his red-zone catching, touchdown-celebrating ways to the NFL and the Detroit Lions, but a current Bruin is capable of taking up Fauria's mantle in 2014.
Sophomore Thomas Duarte may or may not be able to match Fauria's dance moves, but Duarte this season could be the reliable red-zone target Fauria was.
|2014 UCLA Bruins Schedule|
|Aug. 30||Virginia||Charlottesville, Virigina|
|Sept. 6||Memphis||Pasadena, California|
|Sept. 13||Texas||Arlington, Texas|
|Sept. 25||Arizona State||Tempe, Arizona|
|Oct. 4||Utah||Pasadena, California|
|Oct. 11||Oregon||Pasadena, California|
|Oct. 18||Cal||Berkeley, California|
|Oct. 25||Colorado||Boulder, Colorado|
|Nov. 1||Arizona||Pasadena, California|
|Nov. 8||Washington||Seattle, Washington|
|Nov. 22||USC||Pasadena, California|
|Nov. 29||Stanford||Pasadena, California|
To compete for a Pac-12 championship and College Football Playoff berth, UCLA must navigate through a treacherous schedule that includes a trip across the country to Virginia, a virtual road game against Texas and cross-divisional conference matchups with each of the North's top three teams: Oregon, Stanford and Washington.
"I think it's going to be a very challenging season for us. We've got a difficult schedule, an exciting schedule," Mora said.
UCLA was one drive shy of repeating as Pac-12 South champions, but Arizona State squashed the Bruins' final effort in a 38-33 final thriller last November in the Rose Bowl.
With the win, the Sun Devils sealed the divisional championship and avenged their two-point loss to UCLA at home the season prior.
Arizona State is UCLA's first game on the Pac-12 docket, and it doesn't get any easier from there. Oregon visits the Rose Bowl on Oct. 11 in a possible preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game—that is, assuming neither one trips up anywhere else on the schedule.
That's certainly a possibility. While the Bruins avoid going to Autzen Stadium, they must travel to Washington on Nov. 8. Husky Stadium is among the most inhospitable locales in the conference.
UCLA then closes out the Pac-12 season in the same way it opens, facing two of the conference's best. On Nov. 22, crosstown rival USC comes to the Rose Bowl looking to snap a two-game losing skid to the Bruins.
Then in the regular-season finale, two-time defending Pac-12 champion Stanford comes to town for the fourth meeting between these two teams in 24 months. Stanford took each of the previous three engagements.
In each of Mora's first two seasons as head coach, Adidas-sponsored UCLA has donned an alternate uniform with a particular theme. In 2012, it was L.A. Nights. Last year's was nicknamed L.A. Midnight.
In 2014, the Bruins will wear L.A. Steel:
Prediction: 11-1 overall, 8-1 Pac-12
The pressure is on UCLA this season. While the weight of such expectations might cause other teams to falter, the Bruins have the right leadership in place to keep them focused.
"I don't think when you get around our team you hear them talking about the outside expectations or a long-term goal," Mora said. "They talk about the process, the grind, going to work."
The Pac-12 has not had an undefeated champion since 2010, and there's reason for that. The conference is among the nation's deepest, and this year may be its deepest yet. UCLA is unlikely to escape the regular season unscathed.
However, if the Bruins can win their marquee home games and avoid potential traps, they'll return to the Pac-12 Championship Game with one of the nation's best strength-of-schedule rankings and a very real shot at landing in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
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