With spring practice underway as of today, UCLA football fans have a lot to look forward to. Head coach Jim Mora has the Bruins contending for their third straight Pac-12 South Championship, as they try (for the first time in a long while) to build off an impressive season.
Last season included more ups than downs, ending with a 9-5 record that featured wins against Nebraska, Arizona and crosstown rival USC. This year, UCLA looks to become a more dominating team in the Pac-12 by returning 13 starters, including redshirt sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley and leading-tackler Eric Kendricks, and infusing young talent from their top-10 recruiting class, headlined by DBs Tahaan Goodman and Priest Willis.
It will not be an easy road back to the South Division title though, as scheduling could hurt the Bruins this year as they try to break out in Mora’s second season They face both Oregon and Stanford on the road in back-to-back weeks in late October, and also face USC at the L.A. Coliseum. And don’t forget, they lost the last three games of the season, including an embarrassment versus Baylor in the Holiday Bowl, so there’s plenty to prove. But after giving No. 7 Stanford all it could handle in the rainy Pac-12 title game last year, the Bruins may have a bit of confidence heading back to Palo Alto.
From a football standpoint, there are hurdles to be cleared as well. UCLA will lose star running back Johnathan Franklin, and fan-favorite Joseph Fauria to the NFL, meaning a lot of production needs to be replaced. The Bruins must shore up their average-at-best offensive line from last year, which should get better as the underclassmen gain experience. They also have to reduce the number of penalties to survive in the hostile environments they will face. But all of these problems are very fixable, and it seems UCLA is poised to claim a third straight trip to the conference championship.
The Trojans, Wildcats and ASU Sun Devils may put up a strong challenge, but as long as the Bruins take care of business against the weaker opposition, they should finish at the top. If the aforementioned offensive line woes are solved and the underclassmen mesh, the offense should explode. Hundley is a dark horse candidate for the Heisman, and he could burst onto the scene if the Bruins succeed early. Despite losing his 6’7″ tight end in Fauria, he will have his top receiver from a year ago, Shaq Evans, and also highly-touted recruit Eldridge Massington to help him put up gaudy numbers for the second straight year.
If the Bruins can make the Pac-12 title game again, they most likely will face a Stanford team they almost beat, or a new look Oregon team without head coach Chip Kelly. Those two teams may have been a galaxy ahead of UCLA in previous years, but last season the Bruins proved they made a huge leap in the right direction. Mora made a massive difference in his first year, and is primed to exceed the nine wins from 2012. Get ready UCLA fans, a great season may be a-Bruin in Westwood.