To put it lightly, the UCLA Bruins had an interesting ending to 2006. They had a good win at ASU, then knocked the heavily favored Trojans out of the national title game. And then in their bowl game against underachieving Florida State, they got blasted in the second half to lose 44 – 27. So which of these performances shows what we should expect this year, given that they are what most people talk about when they reference 2006?
The answer, as it turns out, is neither. Despite many peoples’ fixation on those final two games, those games were just part of the story of 2006, and are just a small part of what the 2007 expectations should be.
The real story this year isn’t one game or another, but rather the sheer amount of returning talent the Bruins will have. With 10 starters back on offense and another 10 on defense, this will be a much better team, in virtually every aspect of the game. In other words, expect this to be a very successful season in Westwood.
This should be a solid offense, though there is definitely still work to be done, especially in the passing game. Returning both Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan is a good thing, as they should each improve with another year of experience, although Cowan's hamstring tear will hurt the depth, at least early in the year. However, the receiving corps is a weak link. They have experience, but they lack any big playmakers. Overall, the passing game looks fairly mediocre, and will struggle to be a major factor.
The running game should be better, though. Chris Markey won’t blow you away, but he does good work and puts up solid numbers. And an O-line that returns 4 of 5 starters should help as well. Ultimately, this isn’t an offense that scares you with big playmakers, but they’re a solid group that will put points on the board at a decent clip and, most importantly, will be more consistent and avoid many big mistakes.
Defense will definitely be the strength of the Bruins this year. They return virtually everyone, losing just one player of note in Justin Hickman. That means that a unit which improved a lot over the course of last year (bowl game aside) should only be better this time around.
UCLA’s big strength will be run defense. An already strong front seven (01 yards per game, 2.8 ypc) only loses a DE, and will have more depth, making this a really tough group to successfully run against.
The pass defense won’t be quite as good, but will still be solid. They return their entire secondary, and they boast a really good pass rusher in Bruce Davis. Like so many other places on their roster, there’s no single star but this group plays well together, and there’s no big weakness either.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
At this point, only USC would count as a huge upset win. And that’s still a big stretch, considering how good the Trojans look, and the fact that UCLA won’t catch them napping again.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
Nothing jumps out as super-likely, but the two game stretch against Oregon State (good defense and good home-field edge despite the loss of Stroughter) and Notre Dame (who knows how the new guys will pan out) could provide a surprise. Or maybe it'll be that late October trip up to Pullman. Or maybe it'll be the late-season home game against Oregon, who's had a lot of success at the Rose Bowl this decade.
While it's tough to pinpoint where the loss will most likely occur, it's going to happen somewhere. Quite simply, the Bruins are good, but not 11-1 good, especially with the consistency issues we saw last year. They won’t make it to USC undefeated.
This is a solid team with no major weaknesses, and they’re veteran to boot. I know Bruin fans will hate to hear it, but this team really is USC-light, with remarkably similar characteristics, but a little weaker pretty much across the board, and without the big stars that the Trojans have. And that lack of star power is why the Bruins can’t be considered legitimate national title contenders.
However, they clearly belong in the next group, right around #10 or so. And without the X-factors and questions that a lot of other teams have, they look very likely to finish right around there, not much higher, not much lower. They won’t win the Pac-10, and they won’t beat USC, but 10-2 and an at-large BCS berth are very doable. And with Dorrell’s job security once again shaky (and with a senior-dominated roster that will take a major step back in 2008), that’s a goal they better reach.
It's kind of crazy when you stop and think about it. The last five years have given us one of the most dominating runs in college football history; the 2002 team lost twice, but by the end of the year they had arguably the best team in the nation (people always forget how good Iowa was that year, and the Trojans completely crushed them in the Orange Bowl), the 2003 team split the national title with LSU (though the Tigers were probably the slightly better team), the 2004 team smoked almost everything in its path en route to a virtually unanimous national title, the 2005 team stormed through its schedule before falling to Texas in one of the greatest bowl games ever played, and the 2006 team had a “rebuilding” year of 10-2 with a dominating Rose Bowl win over Michigan.
So can the party keep on going? It certainly looks like it, with another top-notch Trojan squad taking the field this year, led by one of their best defenses yet. Do they have weaknesses? Yes, but they are nonetheless the strongest team in the country, and have as good a shot as anyone at winning another national title, despite a really nasty schedule.
Unusually, offense looks like a bit of a question mark for USC. There’s an incredible amount of talent here, but they’re a bit short on proven guys. The running game struggled at times last year, especially in their two losses, getting held to less than 100 yards each time. The return of Washington, plus a boatload of great new recruits, will help a lot, and the O-line should be good again despite replacing two starters. The running game will be good, but it won’t quite be great.
The same is true of the passing game. John Booty has done a good job here, but now he has to show that he can do it without Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett to throw to. The new guys are great talents, but lack experience, which means that this could be the year where they really start to feel Norm Chow’s absence. Again, the passing game should be good, but it won’t be great.
This is the group that needs to be great for the Trojans to win it all again. And fortunately, they look up to the task. They’ve got 10 starters returning, and plenty of them will be starring on Sundays in the near future.
The run defense looks like a huge strength for USC, as they did a fantastic job against opposing teams last year, and return six of the front seven. It’s early to peg them as the single best run defense in the country, but if they aren’t I can’t think of one better.
Pass defense won’t be quite as good, although returning all four secondary guys will be a big help. Still, they gave up a few too many yards (though largely in garbage time), and only got 11 picks on the year. Those numbers will improve, but this will merely be a very good unit rather than a great one.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Not applicable. Seriously, what would count as an upset win for the Trojans?
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
There are so many landmines here that it’s tough to single just one out as the biggest threat. Still, we can narrow it down a bit to the likeliest. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to be on the road, which gets rid of UCLA. Nebraska is a bit too young and a bit too thin on defense to think they can win, and Notre Dame is way too young to think they’ll be ready by then. And unless ASU gets a lot better on defense, that’s a long shot too.
That leaves Oregon and Cal, two teams with major talent on offense but some question marks (Oregon with Dixon, Cal with the defense). Either one is a legit possibility, especially if those teams bring their A game, but I’d lean more towards Cal, since that game will come at the tail end of a brutal four-game stretch for USC.
Once again this looks like a national-title type of team. The offense isn’t quite good enough, and the schedule is a bit too tough, to expect a 12-0 coronation. But with this type of schedule, 11-1 ought to be plenty to get them into another title game where they will once again be the favorites.
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