The UCLA Bruins made great strides during the offseason in bolstering talent on both sides of the ball. However, UCLA faces a series of tests this upcoming year that will dictate whether they deserve to be mentioned in the conversation of 2010 Rose Bowl contenders.
In order for UCLA to win the Pac 10 conference, it will need to avoid injuries and subpar performances from its quarterbacks, demand a more cohesive performance from its offensive line, and not give up big plays on defense and special teams. Below are three of the Bruins’ most daunting tasks for the upcoming season.
If UCLA doesn't win any of the three matchups below, disappointment will permeate throughout Westwood in what would surely be a lost season. One win would equal no more than the status quo, but two would demonstrate marked improvement in the program.
If the Bruins were to somehow win all three of these games, they would not only be in the Rose Bowl conversation, but would serve as the conference front-runners who would pace the Pac 10 field, and perhaps win their first BCS Bowl Game in their home stadium.
On to the matchups…
Saturday, September 25, 2010: UCLA @ Texas
Garrett Gilbert takes over QB duties from the departing Colt McCoy in Austin. Although the second-string Gilbert was thrown to the proverbial wolves in the 37-21 BCS championship loss against Alabama after McCoy unexpectedly left the game with an injury, the young backup led Texas to more second-half points than the Tide could produce.
While his passing numbers looked ugly on paper, one can’t really blame a green Gilbert for performing poorly against the No. 1 defense in the nation, considering he completed the same number of passes on Jan. 7 as he had all season. Regardless of last season’s overall performance, the five-star sophomore should be capable of taking the reins of the Longhorn offense in 2010 after an offseason of preparation.
In addition to McCoy, other notable Texas departures include All-American safety Earl Thomas, the Longhorns’ 2009 leading receiver Jordan Shipley, and recently-arrested sophomore Dan Buckner, who will transfer out of the program.
Underclassmen wideouts Malcolm Williams and James Kirkendall will need to step up in Shipley and Buckner’s absence, and help season young WR recruits Darius White, Mike Davis, and Chris Jones in order for the ‘Horns passing attack to not miss a beat during the offseason transition.
One wouldn’t ever say that UT is in a “rebuilding” year, but given the relative inexperience of its new starting quarterback coupled with the turnover at wide receiver, this could be the season when a reloaded Bruin defense could catch Texas looking ahead to the Red River Shootout against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl the following Saturday.
Thursday, October 21, 2010: UCLA @ Oregon
When Rick Neuheisel took over as UCLA head coach in 2008, he aimed to bring two things to UCLA football: respect and exposure. On Thursday, Oct. 21, he will get a shot at both in the same night.
Oregon’s standing atop the Pac 10 was recently dealt a haymaker when the university was forced to suspend starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli for the entire 2010 season after he pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary.
Masoli and OU wide receiver Garrett Embry were accused of stealing laptop computers, a video projector, and a guitar from a fraternity house in January. Embry, who garnered all of two catches for -4 yards in 2009, was kicked off the team.
Masoli should be back the following season after his suspension is served, but his 2010 absence leaves UCLA with a golden opportunity. If Neuheisel has his players properly motivated, they will travel up to an always-hostile Autzen Stadium in front of a nationally televised audience, and exhibit the progress and improvement that the program has made in recent years.
However, without Masoli under center for the Ducks, the Bruins may have a legitimate chance to win if their retooled defense can make a few stops on Oregon’s spread offense and force key turnovers.
The last time UCLA and Oregon matched up last Oct. 10, Nate Costa was the starting signal caller for the Ducks while Masoli missed the game with an injured knee. OU defeated the Bruins 24-10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Although the score would indicate Oregon won the game easily, Bruin fans will sorely remember that two Duck TDs were scored via a 32-yard interception return and a 100-yard kickoff return.
In other words, UCLA handed the game (and, consequently, a Rose Bowl berth) to Oregon without much of a fight. This loss left a bitter taste in Bruin Nation’s collective mouth for the rest of last season.
Although Costa has battled injuries for most of his collegiate career, he was actually named the starting QB at the beginning of the 2008 season before a torn knee ligament thrust Masoli into the spotlight. Until Masoli’s suspension, Costa was looking more and more like a modern-day Wally Pipp .
After a dismal performance in last year’s matchup, UCLA and QB Kevin Prince will get a shot at redemption and national respect against Costa, head coach Chip Kelly, and the rest of the Pac 10 Champion Ducks under the lights in Eugene next October. Conversely, Costa will get a chance to show that same national audience that he deserved to be Oregon’s starting QB all along.
Saturday, December 4, 2010: USC @ UCLA
Coach Neuheisel demonstrated a great deal of class when he didn’t fault Pete Carroll for the former Trojan head coach’s decision to run up the score in the final minutes of their last matchup on Nov. 28.
After UCLA used their remaining timeouts in spite of a double-digit deficit, the then-USC head coach called a play-action pass that resulted in a 48-yard touchdown with 44 seconds left. Bruin fans were incensed at the perceived lack of sportsmanship demonstrated by Southern Cal, but Neuheisel kept his cool about the situation in front of the media. On Dec. 4, the Bruins will have their shot at retribution, but payback will be no easy task.
USC had been the toast of the Pac 10 for the better part of a decade until a disappointing 2009 called for a reality check with a true freshman under center. However, now that Ducks QB Jeremiah Masoli is suspended for all of 2010 and Stanford running back Toby Gerhart has gone pro, the conference figures to be up for grabs this year.
Although one could expect a more experienced Matt Barkley and the excellent 2010 Trojan recruiting class to have ‘SC atop the Pac 10 in the preseason rankings, UCLA shouldn’t be far behind. Their ability to hang with USC in the next matchup will be dictated by oft-injured QB Kevin Prince.
If the Bruin signal caller plays well enough to set up the revamped running game while giving his defense sufficient time to rest on the sidelines, then the Bruins will have a shot to upset the Trojans. However, if Prince plays as poorly as he did vs Southern Cal last year and leads the offense to little more than a succession of turnovers and three-and-outs, then expect the Trojans to smack the underdog right in the mouth, and maintain dominance over their crosstown rival.