This week, UCLA Football will open training camp in preparation for the 2017 schedule.
SB Nation’s Bill Connelly has written a very thorough preview of this year’s UCLA team for the SB Nation mothership. Last year, Connelly thought an 8 or 9 win season was likely, even though the Bruins had a win probability in excess of 50% for every single game. And, in last year’s Easy Bear, Hard Bear article, I wrote that 8 or 9 wins meant that, “[t]echnically, that would mean the team underachieved...again.”
Boy, how we were both wrong.
Would a full season of Josh Rosen been able to turn four losses into wins? Maybe, but, frankly, it doesn’t matter because it didn’t happen. It was Jim Mora’s job to make sure his team was prepared to perform at its best each and every week and there’s no way to say that that occurred. Based on Coach Wooden’s definition of success, last season was an abysmal failure by any measure you consider.
This year, Connelly’s S&P+ statistics give the Bruins a win probability of 51% or higher in just six of the teams twelve games. Of those six games with a win probability higher than 51%, only the Hawai’i game can be considered a “very likely win” with an 89% win probability. Colorado, Arizona State and UC Berkeley each have a 63% win probability or higher, but the Golden Bears and Washington State each had a 68% win probability last year and we know how those games turned out. In fact, besides the BYU game, the only games the Bruins won had a win probability of 82% or higher. That’s how badly the team underachieved.
If this year’s team does that, then it’s possible that the team could win as few as two games (Hawaii plus one game with a win probability under 82%). That would almost certainly get Jim Mora shown the door.
But the talent is still there. If Jedd Fisch is able to fix the offense, the upside on this year’s team is high, but the probability of another underachieving season by Mora is just too great to overlook.
There is, however, a reason they play the games on the field instead of just on paper. How will each game turn out? I don’t know, but I will tell you which games I think will be easy and which ones will be hard?
Let’s take our annual look at UCLA’s schedule in a feature we call "Easy Bear, Hard Bear".
Sunday, September 3 - Texas A&M at UCLA
The Bruins start their season at home on a Sunday against a tough opponent. Last year, these two teams went into overtime to decide the winner. By the end of last season, most Bruin fans might have welcomed Noel Mazzone’s offense compared to the shell that was the Bruin offense. The Aggies also come into town with another guy familiar with the Bruins as Jerry Neuheisel has signed on with A&M as a graduate assistant.
At UCLA, Mazzone had a tendency to brag that he called the same five plays over and over again in a different order. Will UCLA’s defense be able to stop Mazzone’s offense? Doing so is probably the key to this game.
Last year, the Bruins went into College Station in front of a hostile crowd of almost 103,000. Unfortunately, the Rose Bowl crowd that day won’t come close to that size. (Feel free to prove me wrong, Bruin fans!)
Why the game is winnable: Josh Rosen will look to prove that he’s back and his shoulder’s ok and that Jedd Fisch’s offense is workable. The UCLA defense has been facing Mazzone’s offense in practice for years. The Bruins should know Mazzone’s tendencies better than Mazzone himself. If Tom Bradley has the cornerbacks cheating up for the inevitable bubble screens, a pick or two could bring some early season hope back to the program. Still, this one gets a Hard Bear.
Saturday, September 9 - Hawai’i at UCLA
The Michigan offense picked apart the Hawai’i defense in Week 2 last year to beat the Warriors 63-3. So, Jedd Fisch should be familiar with crushing Hawai’i. Even though Hawai’i finished at 7-7 for the year, the team still doesn’t have the talent to come into the Rose Bowl and beat the Bruins. This game will probably be the easiest win of the year. On the other hand, playing in the Rose Bowl will be the biggest game of the year for the Warriors. So, UCLA cannot afford to look past this game to Memphis.
Why the game is winnable: Hawai’i may have finished last year strong by winning their last three games, but those games weren’t against a Power 5 opponent. As long as the Bruins don’t look past the Warriors, they should come out ahead.
Saturday, September 16 - UCLA at Memphis
When the Bruins last saw Memphis at the Rose Bowl in 2014, the Tigers came into the Rose Bowl and nearly fought hard but ultimately lost to the Bruins 42-35. This year, the Bruins travel to Memphis and, while Justin Fuentes has moved on to Virginia Tech, Mike Norvell led the team to an 8-5 mark last season.
Why the game is winnable: Memphis has been on an upswing, but they are still an AAC school. While Jim Mora has struggled against Power 5 schools with winning records, he has also beaten up on non-Power 5 schools and, while this one might be close, the Bruins have a lot more talent than the Tigers, but it still earns a Hard Bear.
Saturday, September 23 - UCLA at Stanford
Stanford aka Jim Mora’s kryptonite. Christian McCaffrey is no longer there and, despite leading last year’s game for roughly 59 minutes and 30 seconds, the Cardinal still won. Until Mora can finally beat David Shaw, this will always be a hard bear.
Why the game is winnable: The departure of McCaffrey may make this year’s game even more winnable than last year’s game, but, c’mon...it’s Stanford.
Saturday, September 30 - Colorado at UCLA
The Colorado game is another one of those games which UCLA could have won last year, but didn’t. At the end of three quarters, the game was tied. The Bruins lost it in the fourth quarter on the road against a good Colorado team.
Why the game is winnable: Colorado doesn’t look to be quite as good this year as they were last season. But, a well-coached hungry team is always a threat and UCLA would be foolish to overlook the Buffaloes. But, ultimately, UCLA's talent should prevail to give the Bruins this victory.
Saturday, October 14 - UCLA at Arizona
You could call this the Hot Seat Bowl since both Jim Mora and Rich Rodriguez appear to be entering the season needing to win to keep their respective jobs. The Bruins started the Wildcats’ tailspin when they visited in 2015 and they destroyed the Cats during the Red Out game.
Why the game is winnable: UCLA has beaten Arizona easily the past two years. It almost deserves to be considered “easy”, but it’s still a road conference game. So, “medium” seems appropriate.
Saturday, October 21 - Oregon at UCLA
Last season, Oregon had their first losing season since 2004 and their worst record since 1991. So, Oregon did what most schools who insist on excellence do when the team has a losing season. They fired their head coach. Oregon didn’t care if Mark Helfrich had taken the team to the College Football Playoff two years before. They still fired Helfrich. Yet, when UCLA’s team continued where the 2015 team left off, Dan Guerrero let Jim Mora keep his job.
Why the game is winnable: With no disrespect to new head coach Willie Taggart, these Ducks are not Chip Kelly’s Ducks. They should be better than last year’s team, but the game should still be winnable. It won’t be easy, though. This one earns a hard bear.
Saturday, October 28 - UCLA at Washington
This will be one of the hardest games on the Bruins’ schedule this year. Chris Petersen has turned the Huskies into a powerhouse in the Pac-12 North and led the team to the College Football Playoff last season.
Why the game is winnable: Frankly, I’m not sure right now that this game is winnable. Josh Rosen will have to play one of the best games of his UCLA career and the rest of the team will really need to step it up to win this one. This game just feels like one of those games that we’ve seen so often under Jim Mora where UCLA snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
Friday, November 3 - UCLA at Utah
As if playing Washington wasn’t tough enough, just six days later, they have to head to Utah to face the Utes on a Friday night in November. That means there could be even be snow for this game.
Why the game is winnable: UCLA heads into this game looking for payback for last year’s close loss. If the weather doesn’t prove to be a problem, the game will probably come down to which team scores last. For this and other reasons, this game is almost always a Hard Bear.
Saturday, November 11 - Arizona State at UCLA
UCLA lost more than a game against ASU last season. They lost Josh Rosen too. If Rosen hadn’t gotten hurt, the Bruins probably would have won this one.
Why the game is winnable: This year, the teams play at the Rose Bowl. But, the Sun Devils have been a tough game for the Bruins the past several seasons. That’s why this game earns a “hard” rating.
Saturday, November 18 - UCLA at Southern Cal
The rivalry game is always hard. The records don't matter. This game could end up deciding who wins the South.
Why the game is winnable: Every rivalry game should automatically be winnable. If you can't get up to play $c, you don't belong on a UCLA team. Southern Cal looks to continue its resurgence under Clay Helton and Sam Darnold. This will be a Hard Bear.
Friday, November 24: UC Berkeley at UCLA
Last year, these teams played a forgettable game up in Berkeley on Thanksgiving weekend. This year, they do it again in Pasadena. But, because it’s being played on Black Friday, the size of the crowd will be small. And, being the final game of regular season, we should know whether it looks like Jim Mora will coach the Bruins in 2018. Losing to the Golden Bears at home like the team did last year would seal that fate.
Why the game is winnable: Sonny Dykes is out and Justin Wilcox is in at Berkeley. That right there could make this game harder to win than in recent years, but it doesn’t change the fact that UCLA should almost always beat Berkeley. This game gets a medium bear.
So, there you have it. While I think UCLA has the talent to make most of the games winnable, it does not mean that it is what we are expecting or predicting. There is, after all, a reason they play the games. And, you’ll recall that UCLA, on paper, should have been capable of winning all twelve games last season.
Based on last season’s “Easy Bear, Hard Bear” article, UCLA was 2-3 in the Easy games, 1-0 in the Medium games and 1-5 in the Hard games. This year we have a tougher schedule. There are nine Hard games, up from six last year, two Medium games and just one Easy.
How do you view each of this year's games? Sound off in the comments below.
And, as always, we hope that at the end of the season, everyone in Bruins Nation will be doing this:
I’m just not sure there will be much reason for dancing.