A Pac-12 championship feels like distant dream for the UCLA Bruins this season. However, it may be closer than it seems.
UCLA is a sleeping giant and if all three of these pieces fall in the correct positions they could contend find themselves in the Pac-12 championship game.
The Offensive Line Improves Dramatically
The two most important positions on the offensive side of the ball are the quarterback and the offensive line. Arguably, UCLA has a top three quarterback in the entire nation. But, Rosen cannot succeed without the help of his offensive line.
Last year we saw what happened with no protection. UCLA came in 127th in rushing yards per game; Rosen ended the year on the shelf and the Bruins finished with a sub .500 record and no bowl game. The entire conversation about the success of the offense has to begin and end with this offensive line group. New offensive coordinator, Jedd Fisch, has a history of making his quarterbacks better. He guided former Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock to a 3,000-yard passing season, the second in school history. Fisch also made Jacory Harris an elite Miami quarterback in the 2011-2012 season which is impressive feat in it of it self.
Fisch knows how to pull the best out of his quarterbacks and these quarterbacks needed protection to perform up to these standards. If Fisch can drastically improve the offensive line with a combination of quicker reads for Rosen and more time for the junior quarterback then, UCLA could have a top offensive in the conference.
Excluding the debacle against Utah, UCLA’s defense was a impressive unit. The loss of NFL first round pick Takk McKinley will hurt the defense but their depth at the defensive end position will allow them to absorb this loss much easier. The defensive line ranked 61st in sacks last year and for the Bruins to contend in conference they must improve.
Jacob Tuioti-Mariner is the new leader on the defensive line and has to be Takk-esque if the Bruins are to stay in the hunt. Mariner was rotational player at the beginning of the season but tailed multiple tackles in 11 of 12 games, which signals that things are starting to come together.
The wild card for the defensive line is freshman Jaelan Phillips. Phillips was a five-star recruit and was third in ESPN’s 100 recruits. His combination of size and speed will be a nightmare for offensive lines and quarterbacks. He has All-American potential and if he lives up to that potential UCLA could have the best defensive line in the conference.
Red Zone and Third Downs
The two most important plays on offense are third downs and red zone plays. As you may know, UCLA was subpar in both categories last year. The Bruins were 103rd in third down conversations last year by putting up an abysmal 35% conversation rate. Their red zone numbers were just as bad as they ranked 98th in the nation.
An improved offensive line will help in both categories but a running game will be most important in both areas. Last season, if UCLA was in a third and short situation the running game simply wasn’t reliable enough to gain those yards, which forced UCLA to pass 40 times in a game.
Bolu Olorunfunmi seems in line to get the bulk of the snaps in the backfield but that could change in a week. UCLA’s running back by committee approach can be extremely dangerous. None of the running backs last year really stood out and if this continues then expect another disappointing running game.
If the Bruins can boost both of their percentages on third down and score touchdowns instead of field goals then they could easily find themselves in Levi Stadium playing for the Pac-12 title.