As is always the case with UCLA, they have a very highly rated schedule in 2011. The Bruins' schedule being ranked as one of the hardest in the country is a yearly occurrence and 2011 is no different with Boyd's World churning out numbers that list UCLA's schedule as the seventh toughest in the nation. That said, the toughness of UCLA's schedule in 2011 is very different than the toughness of most years past.
UCLA's schedule in 2009 was the epitome of tough scheduling. Out of conference the Bruins played in the Houston College Classic against Rice, Baylor and UC Irvine, at Oklahoma and at East Carolina in consecutive weekends. It was a brutal grind that checked the Bruins in as one of the toughest schedules in the country despite the Pac-10 having one of its weakest years in history. Seasons before that had UCLA hosting Oklahoma and East Carolina, traveling to and hosting Ole Miss, Miami among others. Even last season, UCLA went to Corpus Christi for the Whataburger Classic where they played three different teams including College World Series participant Oklahoma.
This season the Bruins have eased up considerably on their out of conference slate, although some of it wasn't intentional, but that doesn't mean the schedule as a whole is any easier. In fact, it might be as tough as it has ever been.
This past weekend UCLA played San Francisco, a solid West Coast Conference program, but they're not a regular Regional participant and when the Bruins are playing well they aren't the toughest of challenges. Next weekend, UCLA will stay at home to play one of the poorer teams in a poor WAC, San Jose St. After that was supposed to be two weekend's of the Bruins' sternest tests of the season, but that won't be the case. A trip to once national title contending Nebraska isn't so formidable now that the Huskers are in a bit of a lull. The following weekend is the Dodgertown Classic, but St. Mary's isn't much of a threat, USC has been a bad program for several years and Georgia has gone from national champions a couple years ago to SEC also-ran the last two.
Now, UCLA had no way of knowing that Nebraska was going to take a dip when they scheduled them. The Huskers were the gem of the cold weather programs and weren't too far removed from Big 12 titles and trips to the College World Series. When Georgia originally came up as an opponent they were defending national champions, but both have slipped so the Bruins' attempt to lighten up the schedule a little after the brutal 2009 slate has turned into a major lightening up.
One thing that is a constant in the Bruins' scheduling is midweek games against local Southern California teams, but even that isn't as tough as it usually is. In some years UCLA has played a three-game weekend series against Cal St. Fullerton, but this year it is only two midweek games. Meanwhile, Long Beach St., Pepperdine, UC Irvine and San Diego St. are all in the midst of down years. A three-game series against Cal St. Bakersfield in the Bruins' bye from Pac-10 play isn't going to impress anyone either.
Out of conference, UCLA's schedule in 2011 is undoubtedly easier than it has been in recent years, but the schedule as a whole might end up as the strongest the program has had in recent years. The Bruins' toughest out of conference schedule was in 2009, but that was a historically bad year for the Pac-10 and made half of the schedule much easier than it has ever been. This year the Pac-10 could have its strongest year ever and the Bruins could be in for a true 27 game grind when league play begins.
Not that they weren't expected to be a good team entering the season, but going to Rice and coming away with a series win to open the season really opened eyes to how good Stanford could be and the Bruins have to play them in Palo Alto on Easter weekend. A trip to Oregon where UCLA will have to play on the all-turf field in front of over 4,000 fans is the Bruins' next road trip after Stanford and the road trip that follows will come on the final weekend of the season when they have to play Arizona St. in the scorching Tempe heat.
The final three road trips of the season are enough of a test on their own, but the rest of the Pac-10 schedule isn't all roses and unicorns. Luckily, UCLA's opening Pac-10 series is a "road trip" to USC's Dedeaux Field where the Bruins have won six of their last seven. After that Washington, the Pac-10's expected doormat visits Jackie Robinson Stadium so it's not too bad there, but after that it is a trip to Washington St., a visit from Arizona and the three big road trips with visits from Oregon St. and Cal thrown in, hardly teams that the Bruins can roll over.
UCLA's seven weeks to close out Pac-10 play will be among the toughest seven week conference stretches anyone has all season, which turns attention back to the first two weeks of conference play. With the Pac-10 being as tough as it is every team is going to take their knocks in conference play. What that means is the team that can sweep both USC and Washington will have a gigantic leg up on the rest of the competition, meaning UCLA's first two conference series could end up the most important.
This season, the Pac-10 could be the toughest it's ever been. Last year eight teams from the conference qualified for Regionals and this season the conference is expected to be even tougher. With a trio of road trips to close out the season like the Bruins have, things will be brutal and more than make up for a weaker out of conference slate than the Bruins have had in years.