And so begins the waiting, the torturous anticipation.
With the 2014 Pac-12 football schedule recently released, UCLA Football will be the single most anticipated season for a sports team at UCLA since 1998. Yes, even more than in Howland's heyday, simply because the drought for football has been long and painful. In 2013, faced with a daunting schedule, the team produced one of the few 10-win seasons at UCLA, with nary a fluke. One bad half of football left us short of our goal, but the success was palpable, even if somewhat expected.
So what is the challenge in 2014? Well it's simple: staying focused, avoiding complacency, and achieving the Wooden standard of success. The stars are mostly aligned for this UCLA team, with an accommodating schedule (despite Chianti's screw-up), continuity on the staff (if not improvement), the return of a Heisman candidate and an experienced team. All of this has resulted in some good press for the Bruins, who are almost universally viewed as a top-10 team.
We are not quite ready to put forth our specific expectations for this fall. With Signing Day yet to come, followed by spring camp, we will get a better sense of what we believe to be a reasonable performance for our team afterwards. So please do not take this as what we think UCLA should accomplish, but merely a gauge of my own perceived difficulty of each game.
For now, here is a quick breakdown of our weekly clashes in 2014. Keep in mind, the scale of Easy, Medium and Hard is only relative and does not apply to the expected outcome of the game, but rather describes how the games compare to each other, in my opinion.
Saturday August 30 - UCLA at Virginia
The Bruins start their season with a road game, about as far as they can travel without going to Hawaii. You would think that in itself would make for a tougher game. But their opponent will be the Virginia Cavaliers, who went 2-10 last year. While they somehow did manage to beat BYU in their opener, their only other win was against a FCS school. They have been rather terrible for the last two years but with many returning players they will be better than 2-10 in 2014. That being said, with a less-than-intimidating home field advantage, they should not pose any problems for the Bruins.
Why the game is winnable: Virginia was the worst team in the ACC last year and has nowhere near the talent level on their team. I love the school, but their football program is not exactly a powerhouse.
Saturday September 6 - Memphis at UCLA
UCLA's home opener at the Rose Bowl will start rather comfortably. Memphis won only 3 games last year, with only one being somewhat meaningful. They were however reasonably competitive in some of their losses, losing by a TD or less in 4 games, on the back of a decent defense. Their offense could improve next year, as their starting RB was given a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. But Pasadena is a long way from Memphis and the stadium should be rocking in anticipation of the best UCLA season in years, even if students haven't started school yet.
Why the game is winnable: Memphis was the worst team in the AAC but their schedule included games against UCF and Louisville, both of which they only lost by a TD. Again, the talent level on the team pales in comparison to the Bruins', but it would be a mistake to overlook this team.
Saturday September 13 - UCLA at Texas
Ah yes, the Chianti Bowl. Yes you read that right, I am putting this down as a road game, thanks to Chianti Dan's brilliant scheduling after being Jedi mind-tricked by Jerry Jones ("this is the stadium you are looking for"). Pegged as a "neutral" site, Cowboy Stadium in Arlington instead will host UCLA against Texas, whose campus is a mere 3 hours away. I wonder if alums of the flagship university in Texas live anywhere near Dallas. Hmm. If Mack Brown was coaching this game, I would feel more comfortable. But he resigned and Charlie Strong was hired after having had some success at Louisville. He is a young, energetic coach who will have his team fired up for a game against a likely top 10 opponent. And the Longhorns have a ton of players returning.
Why the game is winnable: Texas had some concerns at quarterback in 2013 and that should continue this season, so they will likely be running the ball quite a bit. They will also be replacing three starters on their OL, so the offense may not exactly be clicking. The defense, on the other hand, should be really good, especially under Strong. This game may come down to the edge the UCLA defense has on the Texas offense, particularly if Bruin fans are outnumbered, as they almost certainly will be.
Saturday September 20 - bye
Thursday September 25 - UCLA at Arizona State
While UCLA begins conference play with a road game on a Thursday night, it does at least come after a bye. Still, thanks to our resident doofus AD, this will be UCLA's third road game in its first four games. Not much favor from the Pac-12 either, pitting the Bruins against the defending South Division champs, but it sure makes for great TV! At least it will be a night game, so temperature should not be an issue in Tempe. In the last two matchups, the away team has won a tightly contested game.
Why the game is winnable: Myles Jack will play defense. End of story. The ASU offense will benefit from 8 returning starters, but the defense will take a hit not only with the departure of Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, but also other upperclassmen. This would have been categorized as "Hard", but between ASU's lame showing in the last 2 games of 2013, the attrition, and the fact that UCLA won there in 2012, I think Medium is appropriate.
Saturday October 4 - Utah at UCLA
You may think that since we beat Utah on the road last year, this would be an easy game. You may think that since Utah lost its starting QB due to retirement, our defense would dominate. I think you would be wrong. Kyle Wittingham is a good coach. He had a young, unheralded team in 2012 that played UCLA down to the wire. I would almost venture to say that, IMO, they will challenge for the second spot in the division.
Why the game is winnable: Utah is far more beatable outside the confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium. And yes, they will have to break in a new QB but Dennis Erickson has been doing a decent job. But at home, our defense could make this a nightmare for him. This will be the first game that students can attend en masse and I expect the Rose Bowl to be very loud.
Saturday October 11 - Oregon at UCLA
This could very well be the first of 2 meetings between Oregon at UCLA. And this game could determine where the second game will be played. With the return of a healthy Marcus Mariota, the Ducks are going to be scary on offense once again. Sure, they lost the Black Mamba to the draft, but losing players has not stopped them in the past. Oregon completely destroyed a good UCLA team in the 4th quarter last year. The Bruins will need everything to go their way, with an ear-splitting loud home crowd, to overcome them.
Why the game is winnable: DeAnthony Thomas was a unique talent, and while Oregon just chugs on, he will be hard to replace. Mariota will likely pick up some of that slack, but that means more hits from a tough UCLA defense. Finally, Nick Aliotti retired. While we mocked his whining and his need for attention, he had the Duck defense playing opportunistically and effectively. Not sure how his replacement will pan out, but UCLA was able to move the ball against them.
Saturday October 18 - UCLA at Cal
Following a huge game against Oregon, this has all the makings of a trap game. And let's face it, even Coach Mora has not yet vanquished the road demon at Berkeley. While their fans tend to show up for this game, the talent disparity is still quite apparent now between the two programs. They have a lot of work to do and need a good Signing Day in order to get things rolling again.
Why the game is winnable: Cal is in the midst of a massive rebuilding under Sonny Dykes, with many defections from a team that just was terrible last year, despite some flashes on offense. I doubt Coach Mora has forgotten about the egg laid in 2012 and the team should be prepared this time.
Saturday October 25 - UCLA at Colorado
The Buffs showed a lot of progress in 2013 under Coach McIntyre, and their young QB has brought back some hope to a moribund program. Colorado played UCLA tough at the Rose Bowl last year and I think McIntyre will have them even better this year. UCLA should be aware and on their toes in order to avoid complacency, as the players are used to seeing the weak Colorado teams of the last 3 years. This team will be different.
Why the game is winnable: While their promising young QB returns, he loses his favorite and most dangerous target, WR Paul Richardson, who declared for the draft. But a well-coached and hungry team is always a threat, and UCLA would be foolish to overlook the Buffaloes.
Saturday November 1 - Arizona at UCLA
The last two years, I thought the game against Arizona would be a tough one. While last year was no cakewalk, UCLA has won the last two meetings comfortably. Unfortunately for Rich Rodriguez, every time he finds himself a playmaker, they leave or graduate. After losing Matt Scott last year, he loses Ka'Deem Carey to the draft. However, a good defense from 2013 will improve further this year, with some experience and more infusion of talent.
Why the game is winnable: last year, Arizona was very much a running team that would basically throw the ball out of necessity. BJ Denker did reasonably well but was more of a runner, and he graduated as well. Losing Carey will mean more reliance on the QB, and unless the new QB improves the passing game, defenses can key in on the run and continue to spy the QB.
Saturday November 8 - UCLA at Washington
Sarkisian was 1-2 against UCLA, losing both times at the Rose Bowl. Seattle is a tough place to play, with a loud stadium, and the elements could come into play in this game since it is in November. The fans will be excited next season with Petersen at the helm and it will be interesting to see where they are at this point in the season. Every Boise State bandwagoner in the Northwest will likely jump over to UW if Petersen is doing well.
Why the game is winnable: while the entire OL returns, the UW offense loses its top 3 playmakers and has to learn a new system under Petersen. This could actually work in their favor, I would expect more consistency out of them. The defense does have a lot of talent and could also actually be better under Pete Kwiatkowski, who was the DC at Boise State. On the road, the key for UCLA will be the defense.
Saturday November 15 - bye
Saturday November 22 - Southern Cal at UCLA
The rivalry game will always get that rating, no matter what. We can never take the other team for granted, as tempting as it is to write this game off as easy this year. The Southern Cal program will continue to be a total mess next year, but I suppose Sarkisian is used to that from taking over a devastated UW program. With a depleted roster, the Trogans were still able to win 10 games last year and beat Stanford. We will see how signing day works out and if they can fill some holes with recruiting.
Why the game is winnable: well, every rivalry game should automatically be winnable. While there is definitely still some talent on this team, the Trogans took a lot of hits from early entrants to the draft, which they are not allowed to replace with recruits due to their sanctions. It remains to be seen whether the Sarknado will bring stability to the program, or if the players will be sick of having their third coach in a year.
Friday November 28: Stanford at UCLA
I struggled with this one. Let's face it, Coach Mora is 0-3 against Stanford, so inherently this game could be a tough one to win. For the last two years, we thought Stanford would take a step back. All they've done since is win the conference each year. The depth on that team is remarkable and their system just works, due in large part to continuity on their staff.
Why the game is winnable: Tyler Gaffney is gone, but waiting in the wings is Barry Sanders Jr. and he is good. Yes, a lot of their OL graduated or entered the draft, but they are just loaded at that position. Where Stanford will likely be vulnerable is on defense, where the loss of leadership and experience should take a toll. At home, the Bruins will need to take advantage of this.
There you have it folks. Once again, while I think every game is winnable, it does not mean that it is what we are expecting or predicting. A lot of information is still yet to come and we will get to that later on this year.
Based on the same post last year, UCLA was 3-0 in the Easy games, 4-1 in the Medium games and 2-2 in the Hard games. Go figure. This year we have one fewer "Hard" game and one more "Medium" game.
Well anyway, fire away with your thoughts and how you view each of these games. Hopefully, at the end of the season, the entire Bruin nation will be doing this.