USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
The frustrations make the success all the sweeter to savor. There was a time – not too long ago – when UCLA was an enigma, if we're being kind; if we're being honest, the Bruins were an annual disappointment. Times change.
UCLA's future hasn't been this bright in decades. The Bruins' third-year coach, Jim Mora, is the first in program history to win nine or more games in each of his first two seasons. As he enters year three, the dialogue has changed: It's not about why UCLA hired Mora, but rather how long it can keep him.
The quarterback will leave campus – sooner rather than later – as one of the best in program history. Mora's first team set a program record for points in a season; last year's offense was even better. In the span of two years, the Bruins' defense has gone from a weekly concern, largely due to the drastic shift in style, to the backbone of the team's championship hopes.
Recruiting's no longer about snacking on leftovers: UCLA recruits with anyone, anywhere and anytime, with successive classes overflowing with prime-time talent capable of quickly bolstering an already deep stable of contributors.
But perhaps UCLA's pre-Mora woes can't be tied to lackluster recruiting; it might be safer to place blame on talent development more than evaluation, which left Mora and this staff a solid core from which to build an annual contender. And so they've built, taking an otherwise shaky, rickety foundation and applying quickset concrete from stem to stern – creating a scenario where the potential found in UCLA's today is exceeded only by the promise of tomorrow.
The Bruins' projected depth chart features just five senior starters – just two on offense. Even if the quarterback leaves early, as expected, the Bruins' nucleus is, well, magnetic. Last year's team played 18 true freshmen, a school record, and started seven rookies in conference games against Oregon and Colorado.
Meanwhile, UCLA looks at its watch, eyeballs the California sun and says, simply: Finally. It took decades to get back but UCLA's back, in the mix not just with USC but above USC, not just among the Pac-12's best but the nation's best, and even if the hardware doesn't come home in 2014 it's safe to say the following: UCLA's bringing a trophy home to Westwood – perhaps sooner rather than later.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
It might take one step back before the Bruins take that one enormous leap forward, in other words. Would the bloom be off the rose if UCLA goes 8-4 before the postseason? Nope. This is doubly true if the young core develops as expected. The Bruins have the pieces to win big in the future.
In a nutshell: It's easy to focus on Oregon and Stanford, back-to-back losses in October, but the defeat that lingered was Arizona State, a 38-33 setback down the home stretch: UCLA could have secured another South Division title but failed, stymied by a weak performance from the offensive front against the Sun Devils' violently aggressive front seven. Yet this was a stronger team than Mora's first version, particularly in the rejuvenated efforts of a defense clearly on the same page with the staff's preferred formation of choice. The defense helped provide balance: UCLA's offense was again the story, by and large, but the growth on the opposite side gives a glimpse into the Bruins' blueprint – move the football through the air and on the ground, north-south and east-west, and get after the football when the opposition attempts to do the same. The philosophies have been solid since the jump; last year's team fully embraced the process.
High point: Beating USC for the second year in a row.
Low point: Arizona State.
Tidbit: UCLA's roster lists just eight seniors. One of the eight, offensive lineman Malcolm Bunche – more on him below – didn't join the program until the offseason. On the other hand, the Bruins have 33 freshmen.
Tidbit (good hires edition): Mora was one of four Pac-12 coaches hired prior to the 2012 season, joining Washington State's Mike Leach, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State's Todd Graham. As a group, these four coaches have gone a combined 62-43 with two divisional titles and seven bowl berths.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Preseason Heisman favorites
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
2. Jameis Winston, Florida State
3. Bryce Petty, Baylor
4. Brett Hundley, UCLA
5. Todd Gurley, Georgia
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: After opting to return to UCLA for his junior season, Brett Hundley went to work amending three subtle flaws in his approach – and not that the numbers suggest any issues, but there were holes to address. One was his penchant for tucking and running ahead of schedule: Hundley's a fabulous runner, but UCLA would be more dangerous if he'd go through all of his progressions before taking off. A second was his decision-making process: Hundley doesn't always make the right throw, though his athleticism and arm strength typically handle any missteps, and he needs to have more faith in his ability to digest and dissect coverage alignments. Finally, there's some general housecleaning on the table: UCLA needs a more precise Hundley, generally speaking, meaning he must be just a hair more accurate on his attempts – putting the ball ahead or in front of his target, for example, creating a greater potential for after-the-catch explosiveness.
If we're nitpicking the skill set, it's because Hundley can be a great one – he's already great, but he can leave as the finest quarterback in program history. He's already in the conversation, thanks to two seasons unmatched statistically in the Bruins' history; Hundley is right alongside Marcus Mariota as the most skilled and productive dual-threat quarterbacks in college football. And he is, without any doubt and with all certainly, one of the finest players – not just quarterbacks – in the country, not to mention a strong Heisman contender, and not to mention the engine that will propel UCLA's charge for the national title. If he cleans up some lingering concerns – and they're not major issues – Hundley's going to be unstoppable.
The receiver corps doesn't have a true game-changer, but that's fine: Noel Mazzone's offense would much rather have four steady and reliable options than one go-to target, and the Bruins have successfully surrounded Hundley with the tools he needs to be wildly successful throwing the football. One returning receiver has me excited: Devin Fuller (43 receptions for 471) has off-the-charts potential, thanks to his late shift to the position from wide receiver, and could more than fully capture Shaquelle Evans' lost production. Evans' role in the four-receiver lineup will go to junior Devin Lucien (19 for 339), who could flourish in a full-time starting role. The top group, to my best estimation: Fuller, Lucien, junior Jordan Payton (38 for 440), Eldridge Massington, sophomore tight end Thomas Duarte (16 for 214) – he's going to be a good one – and a slew of freshmen and sophomores. All the Bruins need is one field-stretching option; I think Lucien could be that guy.
UCLA shouldn't really differentiate between sophomore Paul Perkins (573 yards) and senior Jordon James (534 yards), the co-starters for the running game. Both will play; both will produce; one may move ahead of the other in a specific game, but both are vital cogs in the machine. What makes this backfield so promising isn't merely this pair, let alone Hundley or Myles Jack: UCLA is as deep in the backfield as I can recall, with Perkins and James joined by redshirt freshman Craig Lee and juniors Steven Manfro and Roosevelt Davis. Let's remember that Jack was moved to the offense last year largely due to injuries; one year later, UCLA could opt to keep Jack fresher on defense thanks to this wealth of ground-game options. Having said that, there's little doubt he's going to make a both-ways impact.
Defense: Any concerns over the health of UCLA's linebacker corps are assuaged by three factors: one, that the Bruins seem more and more likely to utilize a 4-2-5 set with abandon; two, senior Eric Kendricks (106 tackles); and three, Myles Jack (75 tackles, 7.0 for loss). Though there are two starters gone – Anthony Barr being one – the combination of Kendricks and Jack is as sublime as you'll find across the entire country. Kendricks, for one, is the most overlooked linebacker in the Pac-12 and one of the most under-the-radar defenders nationally. Then there's Jack, and there's really only one way to put this: The only way to do him justice is to sit down and press play. He's everything you've been led to believe – a once-in-a-large-while athlete who can do everything asked of him and more.
This is your pairing when the Bruins do shift into a 4-2-5, though two holes do need to be filled in the base set. When it comes to replacing Barr on the outside, look for UCLA to go with a combination of junior Kenny Orjioke, a freakishly gifted athlete, and the steadier Aaron Wallace, who brings far more experience to the table. The Bruins could also utilize sophomore Deon Hollins in certain spots, largely as a pure edge rusher either standing up or with his hand on the ground. On the inside next to Kendricks, look for UCLA to go with Isaako Savaiinaea, a promising young talent who should be better off for his freshman-year struggles a season ago. Another option: UCLA could always move Jack inside, shift Savaiinaea into a role as the top interior reserve and hand one of the outside spots to a newcomer, perhaps four-star freshman Kenny Young. I wouldn't think that's a great idea for the opener, but it's something to consider as the defense works through Pac-12 play.
The funny thing is this: UCLA has Jack and Kendricks yet linebacker seems like the weakest link on the defense – a fact that speaks to the Bruins' talented core up front and in the secondary. Where the line is strongest is in overall depth: UCLA lost end Kyle Fitts to transfer, which stings, but this unit has more than enough depth to not just survive his departure – it'll hurt more in the long run – but rotate wave after wave of talent at opposing offensive fronts. The most promising member of the bunch is sophomore end Eddie Vanderdoes (39 tackles), a five-star talent with nearly incalculable potential in coordinator Jeff Ulbrich's system. Vanderdoes will be joined on the outside by senior end Owa Odighizuwa, who returns after missing all of last season to injury; he seems motivated by his final season.
Though sophomore Kenny Clark gets the nod inside – and he's earned it – it's only fair to call junior Ellis McCarthy a co-starter inside and out, due to his flexibility between end and tackle. Of this group, Vanderdoes has the highest overall ceiling; in terms of single-play dominance, however, a dialed-in McCarthy is an absolute handful. The interior depth continues with Eli Ankou, who's had a really nice offseason, and perhaps true freshman Ainuu Taua, though he might be headed for a redshirt season. What's great about this line is the depth, yeah, but consider how several linemen – such as a smaller end in Zach Vinci – would be nice fits on the outside if and when UCLA opted to shift into a four-man front. This is the best defensive line UCLA has had in years.
And the secondary should – with this depending on the development of a second tier – have the bodies needed to rotate on an even pace with Pac-12 offenses. That's something to think about: Several Pac-12 coaches have told me this summer that matching receiver depth with secondary depth is crucial in this conference; that would entail going seven or eight deep, something I think the Bruins can do if the reserves step forward. There shouldn't be any doubt about the starters: Fabian Moreau (51 tackles) and Ishmael Adams are at cornerback, with Moreau set to become perhaps the breakout defensive back in the Pac-12, while senior Anthony Jefferson (89 tackles, 2 interceptions) and junior Randall Goforth (78 tackles, 3 interceptions) return along the back end. All UCLA needs to do is get Priest Willis, Tahaan Goodman, Marcus Rios and Jaleel Wadood up to speed to provide that second run of reliable defensive backs.
Special teams: The Bruins are set at kicker with junior Ka'imi Fairbairn, who's steady, but had a late change at punter following Sean Covington's decision to leave the program. The punting job will now fall to JUCO transfer Matt Mengel, a late addition to the program. Covington's departure stings: UCLA lost one of the top three punters in the Pac-12. That's an issue on field position, as is the Bruins' yearly wait for a touchdown return on kickoffs and punts. I'm putting it out there: Given the talent Mora and this staff are bringing in every February, I think UCLA's return game brings one back in 2014.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: There's only one loss, which bears noting, and just one senior along the two-deep. But the loss is a big one: Xavier Su'a-Filo was an All-American last fall, in my estimation, and his departure does leave a substantial hole on the blind side. It's one UCLA plans to fill with the one senior, Miami (Fla.) transfer Malcolm Bunche, who takes over at left guard while long-armed sophomore Caleb Benenoch moves from right to left tackle – Bunche fills Su'a-Filo's spot among the starting five, in a way, though Benenoch takes over the lost starter's former spot. Benenoch moves out of necessity, of course, but it's an option made more palatable by Simon Goines' return from injury. That's how UCLA will bookend its line: Benenoch on one side, Goines on the other.
Bunche's arrival should push sophomore Scott Quessenberry out of the starting lineup, but he'll remain a crucial swing reserve all along the interior. He'll enter the season backing up Bunche, junior center Jake Brendel and sophomore right guard Alex Redmond, perhaps the strongest guard-to-guard threesome in the Pac-12. Here are three important things to remember: one, UCLA is actually far more experienced up front despite losing Su'a-Filo; two, it's only logical to expect these underclassmen to take a step forward as second-year starters; and three, the Bruins have really enviable depth inside and solid numbers on the outside.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Oregon: It depends on your perspective. USC's huge, of course, as it always is, but UCLA has eyes on a bigger prize. Seeing that this is the case, notching regular-season wins against Oregon and Stanford will determine whether the Bruins enter December competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Let's also remember that the Bruins will get not one but two shots at the Ducks or Cardinal, meeting one or the other for a rematch in the conference championship game.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: This is a team built to win the national championship – not a national championship, as in some distant point in the future, but as in the national championship, the trophy handed out in Dallas on Jan. 12. There are no weak links, no weaknesses, no Achilles heels; the Bruins are seemingly impenetrable across the board, built to take on any opponent in its path and claim the national title. That is very, very much in play: UCLA is one of the five or six teams that can speak realistically of not just winning its conference title or reaching the playoff but winning the whole deal. It's simply amazing how far this program has come in three seasons.
The offense is superb – perhaps the best in program history. Hundley's the headliner, and a talented one at that, but there's more: UCLA is loaded in the backfield, deep at receiver and chocked with promise up front, though it is the offensive line that stands as the biggest concern heading into the opener; that's all relative, however. If the tackles can protect Hundley, I have little doubt this team will move the football on every team on its schedule. Defensively, the Bruins have an elite defensive front, two stars on the second level and enough depth in the secondary to hang tight with the quick-tempo, non-stop offenses in the Pac-12. Again, this is a team built to win the national championship.
There are two questions. One: Can UCLA survive games with Arizona State, Oregon, Washington, USC and Stanford without a loss? I think the Bruins most certainly can; it'll take a perfect approach against those elite teams – Oregon and Stanford most of all – but the talent and coaching is there to reach perfection. Two: Is this program ready for the next step? That's the big question, and to be honest, I don't know the answer. There are several cases of programs leaping from potential to perfection in one single bound, but it's rarer than the typical: Normally, a program shows potential, gets close to the goal, is disappointed by the result and then leaps to the title. That may be the for UCLA case in 2014 – it may take a little more time. But to say this team can't beat every team on this schedule, reach the playoff and hoist the trophy in North Texas ignores all that the Bruins bring to the table. As noted earlier: At this program's current growth rate under Mora, it may just be a matter of when, not if.
Dream season: UCLA wins the national championship.
Nightmare season: The Bruins lose three games during the regular season and finish behind USC in the South Division.
Who's No. 4? This team's coach shares his birthday with an American actor whose second big-screen role came in an adaption of a novella penned by a New Jersey-born author.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1