2014 Season Preview, Part 1

AUG. 20 -- Does UCLA have what it takes to be among the elite in college football for 2014?

Many times in our annual season preview we talk about expectations.

This year, the 2014 UCLA football season has perhaps the most out-sized expectations of any season in the last 16 years.

Going into the 1998 season, the Bruins were ranked pre-season #6 and in the middle of a 20-game win streak.

But it still doesn’t feel like the expectations going into this season. The 1998 season didn’t have 15 years of almost exclusive futility before it. It didn’t have that all built up cumulatively to heighten the expectations, like in 2014.

So, the question is: After watching this team for fall camp in San Bernardino, are expectations for the season too high?

UCLA is ranked 7th pre-season, in both the AP Poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll. Its quarterback Brett Hundley is being mentioned in the Heisman Trophy race, and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. If you read or watch sports news, and all the college football pre-season build-up, a good portion of the college football punditry is picking UCLA to be part of the first-ever College Football Playoff, which designates the top four teams in the nation to play in two semi-finals.

Is UCLA good enough for all those expectations?

Every year coming out of fall camp we make a season prediction and it’s almost literally impossible to be accurate. In college football there’s just too much turnover every year in its personnel to really know well how good an opponent is going to be. So we do this purely for entertainment value, and to stupidly set ourselves up to fail.

Amazingly, though, we’ve been really accurate in our annual prediction – and in the themes we discuss in the overall team preview. Last year we predicted 10 wins and the overall motif of the piece was that Jim Mora had changed the culture and improved the coaching at UCLA to such an extent that the team would no longer depressingly under-achieve for the season and would play up to its talent level. We had been saying for many years that UCLA was a Sleeping Giant of college football, that it had so many natural advantages and all it needed was a dynamic coach that could change the culture and it would have a chance of regularly being among the top ten teams in the nation.

Jim Mora
It seems that UCLA is on the cusp of that. It hasn’t happened yet; you can’t say that UCLA is “regularly among the nation’s top ten teams” with just one pre-season top-ten ranking. But as long as Mora stays in Westwood and keeps recruiting and coaching the way he is, it’s difficult to foresee a future that doesn’t live up to that prediction.

We can now really say the Sleeping Giant is starting to awaken.

This 2014 season is almost certainly going to be a step in that direction, but the question remains: Just how big of a step? Is this team good enough to make the College Football Playoff and contend for a national championship?

We have spent a great deal of time in cars recently, having to drive out to San Bernardino and back, and there’s nothing to do but talk. We used that time to talk as an opportunity to hash through that primary question. As we said, it’s tough to predict a season in college football since teams turn over so much and, at this time of year, it’s very difficult to know how good the other teams will actually be. It’s even tough to judge UCLA since we’ve seen them so much – and out of complete context of other teams around the country.

But the thing is – we have seen this team in the context of other UCLA teams coming out of fall camp. That’s our primary measuring stick: how much better this team is than other UCLA teams at this same stage. Perhaps a great gauge is to directly compare this team to last year’s team. Is this team better than the team that went 10-3 and ended the season ranked 16th?

We have some reservations and concerns about some areas of the team, and driving in that car back from San Bernardino there were times we were skeptical, mostly because of injuries. But putting it in perspective from other UCLA teams, and last year’s team, we think a top-ten national ranking for this 2014 team is warranted, and it’s easily the most talented team, from top to bottom, of any UCLA team since 1998.

So, we went there. We contributed to the pre-season expectations. Why not? In the car we thought about lowering expectations, not to do it just to do it but because, as we said, there are worries. But in the past 12 years or so, UCLA generally under-achieved in its season, relative to the talent it had. In our preseason previews we started to realize that, to be accurate, we had to figure in under-achievement, relative to the talent on the roster. The last two seasons have been different under Mora. He, his coaching staff and his culture have enabled UCLA to live up to its potential. It didn’t necessarily over-achieve (winning the Pac-12 in either of the last two seasons probably would have represented that), but for the first time in a long time UCLA teams were living up to their capability.

So, those are the factors we’ll go by. The UCLA football team is the most talented it’s been in a long time, and Mora has shown since being at UCLA that his Bruin teams don’t under-achieve but at least play to their talent level.

We trust Mora that he’s not hyperbolizing when he just said Tuesday that this camp was the best and most successful of the three in San Bernardino.

Right there, all of that, is enough for us to believe the 2014 season will be the best UCLA football season in the last quarter of a century.

So we probably raised expectations.

Oops.

Getting more into the details, there are a few criteria we always use to determine UCLA’s potential for the season: talent, experience, coaching, injuries, and schedule.

Talent: Last pre-season we said UCLA had its most talented roster in a very long time, and we think the 2014 roster is more talented. It’s not necessarily more talented on the top end, but in terms of depth, and how a college football season is a test of durability more than anything these days, quality depth is vitally important. UCLA now has a very good depth chart. There is some considerable talent on the second-string that would be starting at even some other Pac-12 schools.

Experience: Amazingly enough, UCLA is still a very young team. In our latest Projected Depth Chart UCLA has only six senior starters (counting Hundley), three on offense and three on defense. But UCLA has been playing its freshmen for the last three years and even though UCLA isn’t necessarily an old team it is fairly experienced. UCLA only has to plug a few open starting spots on both sides of the ball. And if you’re talking about physical maturity, UCLA’s team, as witnessed from the photo galleries of San Bernardino, might be the most physically imposing UCLA team in a long time. You can’t discount how much the transformation of so many bodies from being doughy freshmen to pretty rocked-out sophomores will have an impact.

Jeff Ulbrich
Coaching: Mora has clearly upgraded the level of coaching since he’s arrived, and with some coaching staff changes this season the question is whether the coaching will continue to improve. Jeff Ulbrich takes over for departed Defensive Coordinator Lou Spanos, UCLA replaced Running Backs Coach Steve Broussard with Kennedy Polamalu, and added Defensive Ends coach Mike Tuiasosopo. But there’s also an element to consider – that many of the players have now been in Noel Mazzone’s offensive system for three years, a system that has overall been very successful at UCLA. You have to believe that those players will continue to gain mastery of Mazzone’s offense, especially Hundley. On defense, Ulbrich is also betting that his personnel are ready to add some more layers to their knowledge of the scheme, and is definitely trying to take Spanos’ defense to another level, with far more moving parts. It will be interesting to see if the players are ready.

Injuries: How can anyone predict the injuries of a college football season? It’s literally trying to predict how your luck will go. Every year at this time UCLA’s injuries seem a bit severe, coming out of camp in San Bernardino, but in the intervening two weeks before the first game the Bruins get miraculously healed. Going into the season we’d say that UCLA is moderately healthy. But when you’re talking about injuries of an entire season, again, this team has more depth and talent than any UCLA team in a very, very long time. It wouldn’t be enough to overcome a bad year of team injuries, but it will go a very long way in offsetting and making up for a moderate amount of injuries for the season.

Schedule: It’s a year when the schedule will either break the team or help to anoint it as conquerers. Even though it’s really difficult to predict how good an opponent is going to be in November, given the way the college football season can go, UCLA’s schedule has some basic, well-accepted givens on its schedule – namely Oregon and Stanford – that it’s very easy to predict are going to be very tough opponents, as they’ve always been. Those games are the Gate Keepers of UCLA’s season: Win them and you’ve been given the keys to the College Football VIP Room. We’ll get into the game-by-game analysis in the second part of the preview.

OFFENSE

Yes, we’re going to repeat the mantra again: It’s all about the quarterback and the offensive line. And it’s just not just the offense’s performance that depends on it, really the entire team’s performance. If you have a very effective quarterback and offensive line it can dominate a game on both sides of the field, enabling the defense to stay off the field and literally enabling your offense to out-score any opponent.

So, easily done, right? Why doesn’t everyone know this and do it? Because it’s just not that easy. It’s tough to find and develop an elite-level quarterback and it might be even more difficult to recruit and develop an elite-level offensive line.

Hundley is the biggest key to the season. We had labeled him the potential Savior of the Program a few years ago, and leading the team to a championship season – even just a Pac-12 championship season – might very well make him worthy of the title.

Trying to predict what kind of season Hundley will actually have, though, is a tough one. If you remember, he set records as a redshirt freshman, and then experienced a few hiccups last season. So Hundley’s development, you could say, isn’t on a straight trajectory, similar to most players. He has generally looked better in spring practice and fall camp – not light years better, but more solid, let’s say. He’s far more confident and appears more comfortable in his knowledge of the system. He generally is throwing more accurately, too.

The issue with Hundley has been his decision-making – his pre- and post-snap reads, particularly his reads down the field. In the middle of last season, when UCLA’s offense was trying to expand its attack with more of a vertical game plan (and perhaps doing it foolishly since its offensive line was such a makeshift entity), Hundley faltered. There was a sketchy issue about Hundley having blurred vision in the second half of the Utah game after he allegedly lost a contact lens. Whatever it was, Hundley went into a mid-season funk of sorts, and it appeared mostly because he struggled to find the open receiver down the field. UCLA’s offense eventually found its footing, mostly because Hundley continued to scramble so effectively, and Mazzone then more often utilized a short, quick passing game with the hurry-up offense that was very effective and exploited Hundley’s strengths.

The issue, though, remains and you have to know that opposing defenses are now going to be scheming to take away what Hundley and UCLA showed it did best last season – the short, quick, passing game and Hundley’s scrambling. Now, there’s the question of whether opposing defenses will plainly be good enough to take it away and, in most cases, probably not. But if UCLA wants its offense – and its season – to go to another level, Hundley is going to have to improve at post-snap defensive reads, and stretch the field by finding downfield receivers. To beat Stanford and Oregon it will need to do it. As we’ve said, it’s difficult to say by watching practice if Hundley has indeed improved. If we had to guess we’d say a little but not significantly. Hundley, though, has always been a better game player than practice player. There have always been things he looked a little shaky doing in practice and then looked smooth and efficient doing them in a game.

One of the big factors in whether Hundley will be able to make those downfield reads is if he has more time to do so with improved pass protection. UCLA was tied for 105th in the country (out of 123) in sacks allowed (36 for the season, 2.77 per game). While pass protection is an offense-wide issue, the responsibility primarily falls to the offensive line. Also, whether Hundley will have more of an element of surprise in the passing game depends on how well the running game does, with the offensive line, obviously, also being a huge factor there. So, whether this year’s offensive line has improved over last year is probably the second-biggest factor after the Hundley factor in whether UCLA can take the next step.

Jake Brendel
The offensive line, as of right now, doesn’t necessarily instill a huge amount of confidence that it will be better than last year. Much of that doubt comes from injuries, and the one that sent us over into Doubt Country was the loss of two-year starting center Jake Brendel to an MCL. The loss of Brendel is like a domino effect, with either a player who isn’t a natural center having to play the spot (Alex Redmond) or a very good back-up center that UCLA didn’t want to use at center this season (Scott Quessenberry, who is also currently out with an injury), and then others moving into to other positions to compensate for their move. Not that we’re not used to the musical chairs that has been UCLA’s offensive line for so many years, but this was the year that everything seemed far more set on the OL going into fall camp. It was the year UCLA might not have to start a true freshman on its OL, but that, right now, is a decent possibility. If you’re trying to gauge whether the OL is better this year than last year you have to ask: Is the 2013 OL better with All-American Xavier Su’a-Filo, or is the 2014 OL better with all of the returnees a year older and better and the addition of Malcolm Bunche? It’s difficult to say, especially with the injuries not allowing us to really see the true first-string OL any time before Brendel returns (which now could be as early as next week in time for Virginia). So much depends on whether Hundley feels confident with his left tackle, that he knows the LT is going to protect him, and that responsibility now falls to Bunche, the senior graduate Miami transfer. Bunche is an imposing guy at 6-7 and 320 pounds and pretty rocked up, but his effectiveness at the position depends on size and strength as opposed to quickness. It was a little sketchy why he didn’t exactly start for a good portion of his season last year at Miami. So, there are questions. He’s looked good in fall camp, but that’s not necessarily a really accurate gauge as to how he’ll do in games. It’s a bit worrisome that Caleb Benenoch, the true sophomore who was a starter as a true freshman last year, isn’t essentially healthy enough to play left tackle, where he was slated to play going into fall camp. He had transformed his body and looked like he had locked down the left tackle spot in spring. But he has tendonitis in his knee, and it looks like the coaching staff has slotted him at right guard, which probably doesn’t put as much stress on the tendonitis. Overall, we’d say that the OL was more or less beaten by the DL in pass rush for most of fall camp, but that’s usually the case in fall camp. Well, perhaps it’s usually the case in UCLA’s fall camp with an offensive line that allows 36 sacks on the season.

The run blocking in San Bernardino looked a bit better than last season, but again, it was difficult to tell. We’d have to say that we think the UCLA OL was going up against one of the better front sevens in the Pac-12 in fall camp, so looking a little better in run blocking was probably a decent advancement. Again, if UCLA can establish more of a running game in 2014 it takes the pressure off Hundley, and that little nuance could be enough, with his incremental improvement, for him to be much better in reading coverage.

Right now it’s a bit of a moot point to further analyze the offensive line since there could be some developments with the injured before the Virginia game. Suffice it to say, injuries have put a question mark next to the offensive line. We’d say, though, after we have you all worried now, that if UCLA keeps the injuries moderate on the OL for the season, we could see the OL being improved from last season, based mostly on the group of Benenoch, Redmond, Quessenberry, and Conor McDermott being better as stronger, more experience sophomores. If UCLA gets back Simon Goines and he’s actually able to play at an injury-free level, for perhaps the first time since he’s been at UCLA, then the UCLA OL really has a chance to take a step in its development in 2014, and become a good one rather than just adequate like the last couple of seasons. Even if it’s hit by a good amount of injuries, UCLA has more playable depth on its OL than it has in many, many years, and it could be the depth that gets it through.

Paul Perkins
UCLA has an interesting situation at running back. It has no featured back but perhaps the most depth we’ve ever seen at the position. It’s doubtful that Jordon James will stay healthy enough through the entire season to run for 1,000 yards. Paul Perkins is more durable and steady, Steven Manfro is a good back-up to take the responsibility of 4-7 carries per game, and there is the unknown of freshmen Adarius Pickett, Craig Lee and Nathan Starks. Even if it isn’t one tailback that gets 1,000 yards, UCLA’s tailback position needs to be better than it was a year ago. We think there are enough candidates there to get that done this year, with improved run blocking and, again, with the depth. UCLA’s running game was untracked last season when it was hit by injury, which precipitated moving Myles Jack to the lead running back role for the Arizona State game. That took him off defense, a move that, with 20-20 hindsight, might have cost UCLA that game and the Pac-12 South Championship. Getting production from the tailback spot, too, as we’ve said, keeps the offense balanced and defenses unable to pressure Hundley as much.

It’s not difficult to say that the receivers group is improved from last season. Only having to replace Shaquelle Evans, a more-featured Devin Lucien will easily make up for that, while Jordan Payton, Jordan Fuller and Thomas Duarte are a year better and more experienced. You also add Kenny Walker, Eldridge Massington, Nate Iese, Mossi Johnson, Jordan Lasley and Alex Van Dyke. There is a good deal of talent there, and a few guys – namely Massington, Iese and Johnson – have a chance to really step forward this season. While, again, we’ve only seen them in the context of UCLA’s practices, the talent those three alone have flashed at practice makes you believe that the receivers group clearly will be on a different level for 2014.

Because most of the penalties from last season were on the offensive side of the ball we’ll talk about UCLA’s penalty predilection. UCLA was 120th in the nation for penalties and penalty yards last season. It gave up 960 yards in penalties. If you, say, cut that down to 20th in the country instead of 120th, and UCLA only is penalized for 460 yards or so on the 2013 season, that’s 500 more yards in the plus column. If 300 yards of that are on offense, say, that would have moved up UCLA’s offense from 38th to 24th in the country. Yeah, we know this isn’t how it works in the real world, but you get the idea. We’ll go out on a limb and say that UCLA won’t be able to make the College Football Playoff if it commits penalties at the rate it did last season. Hopefully more team-wide improvement in experience and maturity, especially on the offensive line, will do the trick.

We don’t want to jinx the season, but it has to be mentioned that the back-up quarterback situation is important. If Hundley were to go down, does UCLA have a quarterback that could reasonable step in and be successful? At this point that’s a question. Redshirt sophomore Jerry Neuheisel is the cerebral one who knows the offense but is limited physically. Redshirt freshman Asiantii Woulard is the one with the physical gifts who is still learning how to be a quarterback. Woulard has looked better in fall camp, but neither has engendered a great deal of confidence that they could lead the UCLA offense successfully for more than a few series. We’ve said Hundley is the key to the season, but Hundley’s health is truly the key to the season…

Season Preview, Prediction: Part 2 Premium Story - We preview the defense, special teams and then provide our game-by-game prediction...