With three days until the season-opener and the depth chart set (more or less), UCLA Bruin football is set to hit the road to Manhattan, Kansas, to take on the Kansas State Wildcats.
Pundits, journalists, and fans have all had their say as to how the Bruins will fare this season. Some have suggested that Coach Rick Neuheisel's team will show improvement even if its season record won't, thanks to a tough schedule and an improving conference around it. Others, citing that same schedule, have the Bruins pegged for a 4-8 finish, especially amid concerns at quarterback and along the offensive line.
Regardless of what the Bruins may or may not do throughout the fall, it's time for fans, like the players themselves, to narrow their focus to the task at hand: beating K-State.
Las Vegas oddsmakers currently have UCLA as a two-and-a-half point underdog to the 'Cats—a small margin of favor to be sure—but there's plenty of reason to think that the Blue and Gold should, and likely will, start its 2010 campaign on the right foot.
Flashback to Last September
Bruins fans may recall last season's less-than-inspiring 23-9 victory over K-State in legendary coach Bill Snyder's first game back as head coach. After winning the starting quarterback job in camp, Kevin Prince was forced to sit out the season-opener at the Rose Bowl due to injury (sound familiar?).
In his place, Coach Neuheisel started Kevin Craft, the former San Diego State transfer who became the scapegoat for all the failings of UCLA football the year prior, when the team went 4-8.
Offensively, the Bruins relied on the booming leg of Kai Forbath (three made field goals), both of Jonathan Franklin's legs (119 yards rushing, one TD) and the more-or-less steady play of Craft (13-24, 186 yards, one TD, one INT) to do damage against what turned out to be an inconsistent Wildcats' D led by defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald.
On defense, the Bruins smothered the 'Cats up front, with All-American Brian Price and fellow behemoth Jerzy Siewierski swallowing up Big 12 rushing-leader Daniel Thomas (15 yards, 54 carries, one TD) and pressuring K-State quarterback Carson Coffman into two interceptions, both of which ended up in senior cornerback Alterraun Verner's hands.
Both teams went on to inconsistent seasons and 6-6 finishes. Though K-State, unlike UCLA, did not make it to a bowl game, thanks in part to two of its wins coming against FCS opponents Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech.
Now Back to the Future: K-State Still Not Ready
Fast forward to this season, and there are plenty of reasons on Snyder's side to think Kansas State may once again fall short.
Of course, one should never underestimate the power of home-field advantage. The Wildcats will have the Bruins on the ropes, in highly unfamiliar territory, with the home crowd cheering on its 'Cats at the aptly-named Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Add to that the return of Thomas, an All-Big 12 performer who led the conference with more than 1,300 rushing yards and racked up 11 touchdowns, and the folks in Vegas and Manhattan (Kansas) seemingly have plenty of reason for optimism.
That being said, playing on native soil with its leading rusher may not be enough for K-State to overcome its myriad deficiencies.
Coffman, a senior and by far the most experienced quarterback on coach Snyder's roster, needed almost the entire camp to beat out a junior-college transfer (Sammuel Lamur) and a sophomore (Collin Klein) for the starting spot. Even now, the position may still be up for grabs, as Coffman emerged as the starter after a similar battle last fall only to be replaced after four games by Grant Gregory, who has since graduated.
Defensively, K-State will have to replace Fitzgerald and both of its tackles (Chidubaumu Abana and Daniel Calvin) along an already-depleted defensive front.
Familiar Colors: UCLA Will Emerge Victorious
Granted, Coach Neuheisel and Co. have plenty of their own concerns to deal with. The perennial rash of injuries, suspensions, and academic failings has left offensive-line coach Bob Palcic scrambling to put together a party of five for the opener.
Even without much depth, the group, led by senior guard Micah Kia, should be settled in and more than ready to take on the equally-porous K-State front line and provide the Bruins' offensive backfield some time and space to breathe, if not operate.
Speaking of backfields, questions concerning the health of quarterback Kevin Prince and the viability of his backup, Richard Brehaut, plagued the Bruins throughout the month of August.
Fortunately, now that the calendar has turned to September, it's looking more and more as though Prince will be healthy enough to start on Saturday, with the redshirt sophomore reporting only a "tiny bit" of tightness in his strained oblique muscle after Wednesday's practice. Should Prince be "de-throned" mid-game by another injury, Brehaut, a true sophomore, has shown himself to be much better prepared to take the reins this time around than he was last year.
Supposing Prince and/or Brehaut has a pocket to work with, he'll have plenty of options to which to throw–the long-and-lanky Nelson Rosario, the speedy Randall Carroll, stalwarts Taylor Embree and Cory Harkey–or hand off–returnees Franklin and Derrick Coleman, along with freshman sensations Malcolm Jones, Anthony Barr, and Jordon James.
Defensively, the Bruins will miss having Price and Siewierski, not to mention injured end Datone Jones, around to overwhelm Thomas and Coffman. But starting tackles Justin Edison and David Carter, with plenty of experience (Edison, a junior, and Carter, a senior) and size (about 600 pounds combined) themselves, should be big and strong enough, along with Nate Chandler and Damien Holmes on the edges and All-American linebacker Akeem Ayers bringing the blitz, to disrupt K-State's attack up front.
UCLA's big boys on defense should have plenty of time to get to Coffman, thanks to a speedy and talented defensive backfield led by All-American safety Rahim Moore.
And while the special teams unit may be without Kai Forbath, last season's Lou Groza winner, there will be no shortage of big legs to which to turn. Punter Jeff Locke has plenty of experience splitting the uprights with his booming boot, and freshman Kip Smith has proven to be no slouch and may fill in on kick-offs this weekend.
Make no mistake about it: Playing on the road at Kansas State in the season opener will be a tough test for Coach Neuheisel's squad.
But after last year's experience scaling Rocky Top to beat Tennessee in Knoxville, the most prominent players on UCLA's roster know full well what it takes to come away with a "W."
Add to that the Bruins' superior level of talent, even with all of the absences, and UCLA looks like a solid pick to start the fall 1-0.
Expect a close game, with a final tally in the neighborhood of 24-21 favoring the Sons of Westwood.