Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins 2018 football season! Each week, we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 8 opponent: the Arizona Wildcats.
What a weird year for the Wildcats.
First, the team got off to a rough start, going 2-2 to start the year and looking like the same Arizona team of years past: good enough on offense, but not particularly better than a quality opponent, and with an absolute sieve of a defense. It would have been easy to predict Rich Rodriguez’s firing after the first four games.
Enter Khalil Tate.
The sophomore QB burst onto the scene during a game against Colorado, taking over for injured QB Brandon Dawkins, and immediately set the college football world on fire, rushing for an FBS record (for a QB) 327 yards in his first game, then subsequently torching the Bruins on his way to a 6-week run where he never ran for less than 130 a game. Coincidentally, the Wildcats won 5 of those 6 games to earn a bowl bid.
But then things began to turn. Consecutive losses to Oregon and (somehow) Arizona State to end the regular season put a bit of a damper on things, followed by a loss to Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl. Then, Rich Rodriguez was fired in early January after an investigation into alleged workplace misconduct, leaving the Wildcats without a coach heading into the pivotal recruiting period.
Enter Kevin Sumlin.
Sumlin had been recently fired from the Texas A&M head coaching position despite never going worse than 7-5 while at the school. Most notably, Sumlin seemed to have signed his walking papers after his Aggies came to the Rose Bowl and experienced a second-half collapse for the ages. So, this should be a fun return trip for him.
Look, Khalil Tate is the clear headliner here, and there really isn’t much I can say about him that other, better writers haven’t already. The guy became an absolute terror last year, and now gets to play in a system better-tailored to his strengths, while also getting support from returning stars all throughout the offense.
We should start with that new system, though, because it’s time to say hello, once again, to our good friend Noel Mazzone. You may remember Noel from his time as UCLA’s offensive coordinator, where he ran an offense that was continually great but could never get over the hump against top-quality opponents. Hell, it may be easier to remember the Noel Mazzone offense that attempted to choke away the first game of the 2016 season (before finally beating the Bruins in OT) before actually completing the choke job last year. Mazzone’s offense does a great job of putting playmakers into space, but it is notoriously shallow and good coaches have routinely taken advantage of it. So, we’ll see how things go for the Wildcats. Have fun lamenting the inability to move the ball and kill the clock in crunch time, Arizona fans!
At the very least, Mazzone will have a host of offensive tools to misuse, starting with running back J.J. Taylor. Taylor ran for 847 yards on 5.8 YPC, which is excellent, and he should benefit from a full year of playing alongside Tate in an offense meant to create easy running lanes. The depth chart behind him is a bit murky. So, if Taylor gets injured, things could get worse in a hurry for the Wildcats’ rushing attack.
The passing game, similarly, will have a ton of returning talent. All 3 of Tate’s top receivers last year (Tony Ellison, Shun Brown, and Shawn Poindexter) return this year and should thrive in a Mazzone offense that specializes in quick throws to receivers in space. Ellison and Brown in particular were very effective slot receivers last year and should thrive in the quick passing offense.
Where the Wildcats may have trouble offensively is on the line. Layth Friekh is a 3-year starter at left tackle (an extremely important position to have experience) and Nathan Eldridge is a 2-year starter at center, but that’s about it for experience. There’s some potential here, but it’s a line that will be extremely inexperienced at 3 of the 5 positions to start the year, which could pose some problems.
Just to continue the weird streak, Marcel Yates was retained as defensive coordinator after Sumlin was hired. Yates is known as a great recruiter, but his defense has been, to put it kindly, trash. The Wildcats ranked 115th in defensive S&P+ last year, and don’t project to be much better this year, with an initial projection of 94th. That’s not great and, for the Wildcats to have a special year, they’ll need to be much better than that or, at least. become amazing at winning pure shootouts.
There is some hope that the Wildcats will be rather young on the defensive side of the ball. Most of the key contributors will be sophomores this year and most of those players got a host of experience last year. But this is a defense that is seemingly lacking in star power at the every level. Colin Schooler came on late last year, registering 63 tackles in the final 6 games after only having 26 in the first 6, and he should be something of a leader on this defense. Lorenzo Burns is a legitimately good corner, with 12 passes defensed in his freshman year. So, he should be one to watch as well. But Arizona’s defensive line might be enough of a sieve that things won’t matter anyway.
Chip Kelly vs Marcel Yates’s defense.
A competent coach in Jerry Azzinaro vs Noel Mazzone’s offense.
Kevin Sumlin vs the Rose Bowl.
Yeah, I know Arizona is a chic pick to win the Pac-12 South, but just look at those three things and tell me you can’t see a Week 8 UCLA team absolutely taking this game.
UCLA wins 35-20.