I’ll be honest: I didn’t miss UCLA football this offseason like I usually do.
Lonzo Ball took college basketball by storm, Cori Close’s women’s basketball team had another solid season, and UCLA baseball underwent a youth revival. Plus, I read some pretty good books and did some traveling (Vancouver in the summer is pristine).
All in all, detoxing from the 2016 season felt great, and I was in no hurry to get back to football.
But they don’t pay me to talk about my thoughts on Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog or GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (but if you want to talk about them, hit me up at @nicogervasoni on Twitter).
And with the most pivotal game in the Jim Mora era just 32 days away, we can’t avoid UCLA football any longer.
So here is part 1 of a mega previewpalooza for the upcoming season over the next few weeks leading up to September 3rd.
This season (and these previews) are like space travel: I have no idea where this vessel is aimed, it could burn up in a hurry and you’ll definitely black out and pass out.
So let’s blast off into part 1 by looking at who UCLA has to play this season.
Based on the schedule alone, I have no idea how UCLA will do this season.
I promise that’s not a nihilistic cop-out. Even SB Nation’s own college football robot Bill Connelly has no clue how UCLA will do this year.
How can you say definitively either way?
The offense has been completely retooled after last year’s debacle. Out went Kennedy Polamalu, Adrian Klemm and Eric Yarber, in came Jedd Fisch, Hank Fraley, Jimmie Doughterty and DeShaun Foster. Can UCLA run the ball with something approaching competency after last year’s dumpster fire of a running game?
Meanwhile, the defense is talented but lost Takk McKinley, Eddie Vanderdoes, Jayon Brown, Fabian Moreau and Randall Goforth. Can Jaelan Phillips and Darnay Holmes hit the ground running as instant impact freshmen?
We’ll try to answer those questions in upcoming parts of the previewpalooza.
Furthermore, most of UCLA’s opponents, especially in the Pac-12 South, have major questions to answer as well. Mix them into an already combustible UCLA formula, and explosions are sure to follow.
Bill has UCLA projected to finish a middling 6-6 but be a top 35 team in S&P+ rankings. How does one square that circle?
Quite simply: chaos.
With that preface, let’s break down the Bruin schedule into three categories: likely wins, likely losses, and SURE CHAOS games.
Hawaii (home, September 9): Nick Rolovich is doing yeoman’s work on the islands after June Jones left a cratering, smoldering mess. UCLA would do well not to overlook the Warriors on a short week after Texas A&M.
Arizona (away, October 14): UCLA has been to Arizona as Stanford is to UCLA - a surefire, demoralizing loss. Could this be the end for Rich Rodriguez in Tucson?
Cal (home, November 24): Cal beat up on a UCLA team that flat out quit at the end of last year, but Justin Wilcox has a big rebuild ahead of him.
That’s it for likely wins. The weakest of three non-conference opponents and the projected cellar dwellers from each division, and even then you can talk me into scenarios in which UCLA loses all three.
Stanford (away, September 23): Can we just not talk about this game?
Washington (away, October 28): The last time UCLA played Washington, Chris Petersen was in his first year of building the Death Star in Seattle. Any way he can take the week off for this one?
USC (away, November 18): Remember when UCLA won 3 in a row in this rivalry?
Just when Jim Mora’s job security couldn’t be any more tenuous, UCLA gets to play all three of the Pac-12 favorites on the road.
Someone grab me a plastic bag and some Sprite.
The next 6 games are complete toss-ups, since UCLA and all of these teams have major questions to answer.
Texas A&M (home, September 3): The season kicks off with a good ol’ fashioned Hot Seat Bowl between Mora and Kevin Sumlin. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the loser of this game end the season with a head coach that is not the one they started the year with.
This is without a doubt the most pivotal game of Jim Mora’s time in Westwood. A win would begin to validate the offensive staff overhaul and bank a crucial win before conference play.
A loss would crater the morale of an already angst-ridden fan base and create even more pressure on getting out of the non-conference with 2 wins before a brutal Pac-12 schedule.
Memphis (away, September 16): I’ve never been to Memphis personally, but going to Memphis on a Saturday in September at noon in sweltering humidity seems like a really, really, really, really, really dumb idea. Especially when you’re going to play against a frisky-as-hell Tigers team that will sling it around and make you run all day.
Colorado (home, September 30): The Buffaloes will be one of the best offenses UCLA faces all year, but can the Buffs replace all the losses on defense? And how will UCLA rebound after playing Stanford the week before?
Oregon (home, October 21): The Ducks are starting fresh under Willie Taggart and figure to be contending for the Pac-12 again in no time. But how far along in the rebuild will the Ducks be 7 weeks into season one?
Utah (away, November 3): Traveling to Salt Lake City on a short week (game is on Friday) after a likely bludgeoning at the hands of Washington the week prior seems like a Body Blow Theory loss waiting to happen.
But recent UCLA-Utah games have been dumb as hell, and with likely inclement weather and Utah’s offense being reliably unreliable in recent years, this year’s game should be no different.
Arizona State (home, November 11): It’s another Hot Seat Bowl, with the Pac-12 South edition featuring Mora and Todd Graham. Even if the Sun Devil defense improves some, can the offense maintain with a new starter in Blake Barnett?
To me, it seems reasonable to think that UCLA wins at least 4 SURE CHAOS games and saves Jim Mora’s job for 2019. That would put the Bruins at 7-5 with the other 3 wins coming in the likely win category (no sure thing itself).
It’s isn’t ideal, especially since it’ll likely be Josh Rosen’s last year. But throw in a bowl game win, and you have some continuity (especially offensively) to build upon in 2018, even with a likely new quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
Is it possible that UCLA goes 6-0 in CHAOS games and wins all 3 of the likely wins? It’s not super likely, but yes! Going 9-3 would be a success and likely marked by a much improved offense and a defense replacing its lost talent without a drop off.
After all, UCLA outscored its first ten opponents last year before the USC and Cal games, losing games by only 7 (in overtime), 9 (last second touchdown down 3 already), 3, 6, 7 and 10 points. UCLA was a few bounces away from something like 7-5 last season even while being mismanaged offensively, losing its star quarterback and leaving its running game back in 2015.
Conversely, is it also possible that UCLA loses 4 or 5 CHAOS games in hilariously dumb fashion and finishes 5-7 and without a bowl game? This seems more likely! Jim Mora’s game management has been suspect at best, so watching UCLA blow a game late to someone like Arizona State or Colorado that leads to Mora’s firing at season’s end would be a fitting end to his tenure.
After all, UCLA has lost a home game in the final minute after leading in three straight seasons (Utah 2014, Washington State 2015, Stanford 2016).
In short, I have no idea how this season will go, and that’s not just nihilism speaking. UCLA is a 12 sided die, and the sides showing 5, 6, 7 or 8 wins all have at least 2 faces showing.
But I do know that there will be moments that are fun as hell and moments that are dumb as hell, and Jim Mora’s job security likely depends on there being more fun moments than dumb moments.
Can his Bruins more fun than dumb?
Stay tuned for part 2 of this previewpalooza next week as we continue to hurtle into the offseason void.
Don’t forget a barf bag.