In his Jim Mora's two years at UCLA, he has the Bruins exceeding expectations and on the rise not only in the Pac-12, but in the national title picture as well. UCLA is coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory, with their first ten-win season since 2005, capped off with a 42-12 thrashing of Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
Now, this could be the Bruins time to breakthrough.
Things are pointing up in 2014 with 17 returning starters, including potential Heisman candidates in Brett Hundley and two-way star Myles Jack, but is it enough to beat out the Oregons or Stanfords of the world for a Pac-12 Championship? What about beyond that? Can the Bruins land a spot in the annual playoff? I think Coach Mora and UCLA are in a pretty good spot to get there. Here's why:
The obvious answer. After flirting with the idea of forgoing his Junior season and entering the NFL Draft, Brett Hundley returned to Westwood with a Pac-12 Championship in his sights, but with what the Bruins return on the offensive side of the ball, it may not be such a bad idea to think bigger. The junior from Chandler, Arizona has accounted for 73 total touchdowns for the Bruins in the past two seasons, and will look to for another big year to leave a lasting impact at UCLA. He'll also be behind one of the better offensive lines in the conference, with four sophomores/juniors who saw action last year plus Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche. I expect they'll have better luck keeping Hundley off the turf and keep his confidence this year if they remain intact. Expect Hundley to put up some big numbers in what may be his final year in a Bruins uniform.
One of the pleasant surprises on the UCLA defense was the secondary, which returned just one starter in 2013, and would end up finishing third in pass defense in the conference last year. The back front returns all four starters from last season that combined for 17 pass breakups and 9 interceptions, led by Fabian Moreau, who Jim Mora says looks like a future first-round NFL pick. The Bruins could have their very own no-fly zone in the secondary this year, making it very difficult for opposing quarterbacks and receivers all year long.
While the 2014 slate for UCLA looks tough on first glance, it's a very doable and winnable route to a playoff for the Bruins. The season begins with OOC games against Virginia, Memphis, and Texas, all very competitive contests in their own right, but should be wins for the Bruins. Moving into Pac-12 play, the Bruins draw Oregon and Stanford once again from the North, but the Ducks and Cardinal travel to the Rose Bowl this year to take on UCLA. Road trips to Arizona State and Washington could potentially be seen as trap games, but a healthy offense should have no problem getting by either team.
While all signs and trends for the Bruins are pointing upward for success, there are several things that could keep Jim Mora and UCLA out of the inaugural CFB Playoff:
The worst-case/doomsday scenario for all UCLA that is nestled in each and every UCLA fan's mind: What do we do if Brett Hundley gets injured?
Well, to put it nicely, the Bruins offense would not be in a good place.
UCLA's offense would lose the pass efficiency Hundley has displayed on a weekly basis, not to mention his athleticism and effectiveness in the ground game as the leading rusher in 2013 with 748 rushing yards. There's also the fear of members of the offensive line going down right before a crucial game like Oregon or Stanford. Bruins fans would find themselves in a very familiar position that they were in last year. Injuries brought three true freshmen to the first sting against Oregon and Stanford, where they were a part of the 7 sacks given up combined.
Lack of dominant RB
Last year, RB duties were split between Seniors Jordan James and Paul Perkins, who racked up 500-plus yards a piece out of the backfield. However, neither were the dominant rusher on the team. That title falls to QB Brett Hundley, who rushed for near-1,000 yards in 2013. While the "Running Back by-committee" was effective for the Bruins rushing attack last season, the lack of a true number one weapon out of the backfield hurt UCLA on occasions (see Stanford). Myles Jack will contribute some at RB, but will it be enough to boost the production out of the backfield.
The Bruins offense will be one of the best offenses to watch in 2014 with the return of Brett Hundley, who should put up career numbers this fall. He'll be behind one of the most solid offensive lines returning this fall, with four returning starters and the addition of Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche. They'll keep their QB off the turf more than they did last year. Defensively, the secondary may be the best in the conference right now, and should better their numbers from the previous year. The front seven I'm more skeptical about, but the return of Freshman All-America Eddie Vanderdoes and Myles Jack will keep the rush defense afloat. Overall, it comes down to three things for the Bruins to land a spot in the CFB playoff: Beat Oregon/Stanford/USC/Arizona State, Win the Pac-12 Championship, and keep Brett Hundley healthy. If Jim Mora and UCLA can do that, the sky's the limit at the Rose Bowl this year.