Our long national nightmare is almost over. The 2019 UCLA Bruins football season is finally less than a week from kickoff. So, with the team beginning game week preparations for Cincinnati tomorrow, it’s time to ask...and answer...five big questions facing the Bruins in 2019. Let’s start on the offensive side of the ball.
Who is UCLA’s most important player on offense this season?
This is an interesting question because I can think of at least seven guys who could be considered the “most important player on offense” this year.
On one hand, Joshua Kelley stated his case pretty clearly last season against Southern Cal. On the other, Kelley has been limited for much of camp and, let’s face it, Kelley proved that when he’s healthy he can be seen as one of the most reliable guys on the team.
Then, I was tempted to name five co-most important guys and share this with the offensive line because, after all, “line wins games.”
Ultimately, I settled on presumed starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, partly because his play was so far short of expectations last season and partly because when he was good last season, however limited that may have been, he showed glimpses of the potential that’s been seen for so long. UCLA will need Thompson-Robinson to live up to more of that potential to make the most of this season in order to make 2019 successful.
Who is UCLA’s most important player on defense this season?
To answer this, I again considered players from each of UCLA’s position groups.
Darnay Holmes, Krys Barnes and Josh Woods all merited consideration, but, ultimately, I concluded that the Bruin pass rush has to improve for the Bruins to be successful on defense.
Now, that could come from an edge rusher, but I’m not convinced that UCLA has an edge rusher who deserves to be called the “most important player on defense.”
Instead, my choice here is Atonio Mafi. The Bruins’ big nose guard has slimmed down and will be looking to cause havoc on the line of scrimmage. If he’s able to disrupt opposing offensive lines, UCLA’s opponents better look out.
Honorable mentions here go to two more defensive linemen. Osa Odighizuwa and Otito Ogbonnia who are two other guys who will be looking to disrupt offensive game plans.
What should be the biggest change for UCLA from last year to this year?
On one hand, it would be easy to say that the biggest change is likely to be seen on special teams. That’s because, while JJ Molson is automatic under 39 yards or less, but he was challenged above 40 yards, usually due to someone else drawing a flag for a stupid, discipline-related penalty like offsides. Other special teams units were...umm...challenged last year, too, but all of the Bruin special teams should be better due to new Special Teams Coordinator Derek Sage. And, if we were to focus on just an on-field unit, special teams would be the place where the most progress can be made.
But, I think that the overall play of the team as a whole is likely to be the biggest change from last year to this year. The team’s overall play was inconsistent and it felt impossible to know which team would show up from one week to the next. Even as the team improved towards the end of the season, the results remained inconsistent as evidenced by the team beating Southern Cal in the penultimate game of the season and losing to Stanford a week later in the season finale.
This year, I think we’ll see the team play more consistently. That doesn’t mean that we’ll suddenly see them as an unstoppable force. It’s possible that the team could start 0-3 due to a strong non-conference schedule. But I expect the team to be more consistent due to the fact that most starters return and have another year of playing experience under their belt.
What is the most important game on UCLA’s schedule, and why?
The quick answer here to many fans is, of course, the game against Southern Cal. That’s because the long-term mindset of old school Bruin fans is that winning that game can be all that matters.
Well, in a season like last year, that can still be the case. But, again, things are not what they seem.
After all, been there. Done that.
That’s why this year’s most important game will actually occur on Thursday, October 17th when the Bruins travel to the Farm to face the Stanford Cardinal. It’s high time for the Bruins to break Stanford’s winning streak. While the Cardinal may have their worst team in a long time this year, now is the time to end Stanford’s dominance over the Bruins.
What is your prediction for W/L record and postseason destination?
This is the toughest question of the five that I’ve looked at today. The problem is in predicting exactly which games are winnable and will be won.
In the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Bruins could start 0-3 or they could start 2-1. Let’s face it. If there’s one game that may not be winnable this year, it’s the Oklahoma game. I think the Bruins will win one of the games against Cincinnati and San Diego State. I’m not sure which, but I don’t think they win both.
As UCLA heads into conference play, they start with Washington State, Arizona and Oregon State. Playing in Pullman in September makes the game a lot more winnable than playing there in November. The Arizona game could go either way while the Oregon State game is probably about as close to a guaranteed win UCLA can get with this schedule. I don’t think they beat both Wazzu and U of A. So, at the midway point, I think they are 2-4.
Moving into the back half of the season, I think UCLA will win two of the next three games against Stanford, ASU and Colorado to move to 4-5 before losing to Utah on the road in a November night game in Salt Lake City.
That will put the team needing to win their final two games against Southern Cal and UC Berkeley to become bowl-eligible. I think they take both to move to 6-6. As a side note, after the Bruins beat the Trojans at the new Mausoleum, expect Clay Helton to finally be fired.
The pair of wins would send UCLA bowling with the most likely spot being the Las Vegas Bowl against and either a neutral site rematch against San Diego State or maybe a rematch of last year’s game against Fresno State.
I think that’s the high ceiling for this season. It’s still very possible that the team finishes 4-8 and is home for bowl season again. But, if the team finishes 4-8 in Chip Kelly’s second season, the Bruins head coach will need to improve recruiting quite a bit with some big signings in December and February or it will be another long offseason.
What are your answers to these five questions? Be sure to answer them below in our comments.