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Pregame Guesses: Most Significant Game of the 2014 Season Edition

With the season commencing just over a week from now, we take a look at the best games on UCLA's schedule and try to decide which is the most significant match-up of the season.

Jonathan Ferrey

(This week’s video is a live version of reggae legend Jimmy Cliff performing "The Harder They Come." I’m pretty sure that this was shot at the Hollywood Bowl, though I might be off, it’s sort of hard to tell. I saw Jimmy at the Bowl earlier this summer headlining the annual Reggae Night show. There aren’t too many living legends around, I highly recommend you catching Jimmy Cliff should he roll through your town or when he returns to Southern California. He’s not a young man anymore and there won’t be too many more performances. Given the topic, I thought the song worked pretty well, in addition to being awesome.)

Welcome back to Pregame Guesses.

I wrote the first Bruins Nation Pregame Guesses on August 31, 2008. I opened it up with a hat tip to Halos Heaven, the top-notch SBN blog dedicated to the Los Angeles Angels. Pregame Guesses was their invention first – I just adapted it for UCLA football. Once again – I gladly give credit where credit is due.

Since I started doing the "day before the game post" in 2008, it means that this is the seventh football season for Pregame Guesses. The post has evolved over the years, we long ago gave up trying to calculate the guesses or give prizes or whatever. Maybe someday we’ll get an intern and her first task will be to go back and calculate the totals.

But I doubt it.

I think it’s fair to say that 2014 is the most anticipated of the past seven. I won’t lie, more than a few of those seasons failed to excite me at all, even before the first kickoff. There were some season in there when it felt like we were just playing out the string from Game One, the only anticipation being would we make a coaching change after the season or would we have to slog through another year until the inevitable became reality.

This year is different.

This year we’re ranked in the preseason Top Ten.

This year our quarterback is legitimately a candidate for the various end-of-season, Player of the Year awards. Our offensive line looks to be the best we’ve had in about a decade and a half and the defense has arguably the most talent since the 87/88 seasons. (Note: Despite having the best talent in the nation and Troy Aikman at quarterback, Terry Donahue managed to not win the conference or beat SC either of those seasons.)

Bellerephon went over all of this in much greater detail and with far greater aplomb earlier this week in this post, which you should definitely read if you haven’t already.

Suffice it to say, this season has been anticipated for years by UCLA fans. Not only is the talent peaking and not only has Mora’s coaching staff had the requisite two seasons to establish both a new culture and their offensive and defensive playbooks, but the schedule seems to have finally broken in the Bruins favor.

Yes, our non-conference schedule includes two road trips against major conference opponents, but Virginia hasn’t been very good recently and Texas is in Year One of the Charlie Strong era; if we had to go to Cowboys Stadium to play the Longhorns, it might as well be the year they have a new head coach who is just beginning to establish his own culture and style of play.

As for the conference games, the two toughest teams on the schedule both travel to Pasadena, with Stanford coming to town and Oregon making its first trip down since 2009. Also, the rivalry game against Southern Cal is a home game for us.

None of this is meant to suggest that the schedule is easy. It isn’t. The conference schedule is pretty brutal, just because the conference is really good. The Cardinal and the Ducks come to town, yes, but we must travel to Tempe on a Thursday night to play Arizona State, the defending Pac 12 South champs who beat us in the Rose Bowl last year. We also must go to Seattle to play Washington and new Head Coach Chris Petersen, and that’s never an easy trip.

(If you want to get technical, our schedule next season might be more favorable than this season’s. Next season’s non-conference schedule is home against Virginia and Nevada and at UNLV. But – and I haven’t been able to confirm this – I think that Oregon and Washington rotate off the schedule and are replaced by Oregon State and Washington State, both of which are traditionally, but admittedly not always, the easier of the Northwest opponents.)

So, while we all circled this season along time ago as they one to look forward to, I’m going to drill down even further to try and decide what game on the schedule is most significant.

At Texas in Arlington, Texas (Saturday, September 13)

After warming up against a couple of teams we should beat in Virginia (@ Virginia, Sat. August 30) and Memphis (home, Sat. September 6), we travel to what is theoretically a neutral site game against the Longhorns. It’s a significant game due to the historic nature of Texas football and because its on FOX as a national television game. But I can’t rank it as the most significant game of the season because (1) Texas has been down a bit down and (2) because it’s a non-conference game. Of all the big games on the schedule, not winning this one would have the least overall impact of the year. I mean, it would hurt, but I’m not sure it would derail the whole season.

At Arizona State in Tempe, Arizona (Thursday, September 25)

We get a bit of a break in that we have a bye the week after the Texas game, but we don’t get a full two weeks between games because the trip to Tempe comes on a Thursday night. I feel this will be a very tough game. I really respect what Todd Graham is building at ASU, they play good football and have good talent. That it’s a night game in a very hostile environment makes it that much tougher. Still, we’re ranked higher than the Sun Devils and probably would have beaten them last year if Myles Jack had not played only on offense. It’s a big game, but not the biggest on the schedule.

Home vs. Oregon, Rose Bowl (Saturday October 11)

The home game against the Ducks comes after a home game versus Utah. As I noted above, Oregon is making its first trip down to play us since ‘09. We haven’t beaten Oregon since 2007 (ponder that for a minute) and some of the scores of those losses were nothing short of embarrassing. The scars from those losses still haven't fully healed. There are those who feel that Oregon is not the program they once were with Chip Kelly gone, but they still kicked our butt last year in Eugene. My feeling is, even with Kelly replaced by Mark Helfrich, Oregon is still Oregon until we prove otherwise be beating them. Simply competing with them won’t due. This is, to me, probably the most significant game of the year. Beating the Ducks is an imperative.

At Washington in Seattle, Washington (Saturday, November 8)

The game against Washington follows three very winnable games: at Berkeley, at Colorado and home against Arizona. While the Huskies are a traditional conference power and who are always tough at home, they’re not at the Oregon/ASU/Stanford level at the moment. They’ll also be going through their own growing pains with a new head coach. This is by no means an automatic win, one can’t overlook Washington, but in my opinion we can’t rank this as the most significant game on the schedule.

Home vs. Southern Cal, Rose Bowl (Saturday, November 22)

The Southern Cal game is the week after the Washington game. Because it’s the rivalry game, some will rank this as the most significant of the year. There was and perhaps still is a segment of the UCLA fan base who would rather go 1-12 with the single win coming against Southern Cal as opposed to going 12-1 with the sole loss coming against SC. I don’t and can’t feel that way. On one hand, this is always a "throw out the records" type of game and I’ll definitely pace my way through this match-up once again. But the fact of the matter is, we’ve beaten them twice in a row and we’re point blank better than they are this year. This is an incredibly important game (and that includes for recruiting purposes) but because I just am not worried about them right now, I actually don’t think this is the most important game of 2014.

Home vs. Stanford, Rose Bowl (Friday, November 28)

Stanford comes just six days after the rivalry game. We’ve lost six games in a row against the Cardinal, last beating them on October 18, 2008, 23-20. And while the scores have not been quite as lopsided as the scores vs. Oregon, some of the games were, simply put, ass whippings. The only thing positive to say about our recent Stanford match-ups, is that maybe one could argue that we were at least competitive for a while in some of the games. But, the Cardinal are again a well-coached, highly-ranked team full of talented players and until we beat them, we really can’t consider ourselves an elite Pac 12 team. It’s that simple.

All that said, here is how I’d rank the key games in order of significance:

  1. Oregon (because of the beat downs we’ve suffered and because I think they are off our schedule for two seasons following this year)
  2. Stanford (ditto, because the games have been a bit more competitive and because we play them every season.
  3. Southern Cal (rivalry game)
  4. Arizona State (Thursday night road game against a quality team that beat us last year)
  5. Texas (key, early season, nationally televised contest against a traditional power who are always tough even during a down cycle)
  6. Washington (have to respect the Huskies and the loud, Seattle fans, just can’t rank the game higher than those above.)

And with that, here are your Pregame Guesses, Significant Games of 2014 Edition:

  1. Rank your three most significant games of the 2014 season in your subject line and put your reasoning in the comment.
  2. Of the opponents I don’t have ranked in my top six above, what team sort of worries you the most. (My answer: Arizona)
  3. Is there anyone on our schedule who you sort of like watching? That is, a team that you don’t necessarily root for, but who you kind of like because of the way they play? (I’m not sure about this. I’m actually going to cop out and say the team I’m most looking forward to watching this season other than UCLA is Washington. I sort of liked the idea of hiring Chris Petersen, liked the way that Boise State U. played and I’m really curious to see how his coaching approach will play in the Pac 12. The other former BSU coaches sort of washed out when they left Idaho; will Petersen succeed where they failed? Also, I sort of like Washington and don’t have a problem with their fans or anything like that.)