Over the past few years, no team has been a bigger pain in the ass to the current powers of the Pac-10 (USC, Cal, Oregon, Oregon St) than the UCLA Bruins, who knocked USC out of the national title game in 2006, have traded home wins with Cal every year this millennium, knocked Oregon out of a tie for the Pac-10 title in 2007 (and helped knock them out of a bowl late in 2004), and had won five straight against Oregon St before last year’s loss. Unfortunately, for all of the big moments UCLA has enjoyed, they’ve also suffered a number of problems, from the nearly annual losses to Wazzu to the back to back thrashings at Mountain West teams to losing three of four to Arizona.
This year, the Bruins will be much better than they were last year, when they had their worst record since 1989. They return a boatload of starters on both sides of the ball, and have a few very talented recruits coming in to fill some of the gaps. However, if they want to become a Pac-10 power instead of just being a team that sometimes rises up and bites the powers, they need to start avoiding the bad losses, and they need to start winning on the road, where they’ve only won four games over the last three seasons, especially since they’re got six this year away from the Rose Bowl.
The UCLA offense returns a bunch of starters from a unit that had serious struggles last year, and should definitely be improved, though it probably won’t be good enough to be a serious strength.
The passing game should be the main weapon of the Bruins, as they’ve got a pair of good receivers in Terrence Austin and Taylore Embree, plus a very good returning tight end in Ryan Moya. The offensive line doesn’t have much experience as a cohesive unit, but a number of the individual players have played a lot, and the addition of center Kai Maiava (1st team frosh AA at Colorado) should help a lot. It may take them a little while to gel as a unit, but it’s safe to say that they won’t give up anywhere near another 35 sacks this year. And with new quarterback Kevin Prince looking like a legitimate upgrade from interception machine Kevin Craft (an awful 7-20 ratio), the Bruins should have their best passing attack they’ve had in a while.
Unfortunately, their running game will remain an issue, though again it ought to at least be improved. Again, the line should be better, and there’s at least a chance they’ll find a good back from their group, although there are definitely no guarantees at this point, especially since already had a chance last year and couldn’t do much.
There’s no question that the defense will be UCLA’s strength this year. They’re stacked in all three units: line, linebacker, and secondary. Last year’s numbers weren’t very good, but they are going to seriously improve this year.
The strongest of the three units should be the linebackers, led by 2nd team Pac-10 senior Reggie Carter and Pac-10 honorable mention Akeem Ayers. Senior Kyle Bosworth was injured last year, but should be healthy again this year and become a major contributor as he was in 2007. The run defense will be further strengthened by 1st team Pac-10 tackle Brian Price, which should turn a unit that struggled at times against the run into a legitimately strong run defense.
Last year, the pass defense was at times a very big issue, since star corner Alterraun Verner couldn’t stop teams by himself, and the rest of the secondary was at times a sieve. This year, he’s joined by star recruit Aaron Hester, and safety Rahim Moore (3rd team Frosh AA). Korey Bosworth should again be very good providing pressure, and they should be able to figure something out on the other side of the line as well. This won’t be a great pass defense, but it should still be good.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Did you know that UCLA has beaten Cal every time they’ve had them at home since 1999? When two of the Pac-10’s most home-dependent teams play, it’s usually a good idea to bet on the home team, no matter how hyped the other guys are.
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
Did you know that from 2001 forward, UCLA is a mere 2-5 against Washington St, and that they’ve lost that game every time the Cougars have been even close to as good as the Bruins? Considering that they’ll be playing in Pullman in November, UCLA definitely makes the short list of games where the Cougs have a chance of pulling the upset.
A few injuries have made me a bit less optimistic about this team, but I still think that they should be legitimately good. They’re not ready to make the leap and become true Pac-10 contenders, but they are definitely capable of making some noise this year. I’m pegging seven wins for the Bruins, but if they can somehow knock off Tennessee at Knoxville, they could end up at eight or nine.
In 2004, the USC Trojans won the national title. In 2005, they just missed, losing one of the most exciting college football games ever played to Texas. In 2006, they went 10-2, getting bounced out of the national title game on the season’s last week by UCLA. In 2007, they also went 10-2, but it was pretty clear that they just weren’t the same as they used to be, struggling against Washington and Arizona, and actually losing to Stanford. In 2008, they bounced back, riding a dominant defense to an 11-1 record. Can 2009 continue the recovery, or will they retreat to where they were in 2006 and 2007, or possibly even a bit worse?
There’s so much talent here it’s truly frightening. This year, the story has to start with the offensive line, which should be the best in the country, and it’s probably not even close. All five starters have significant experience, three have gotten postseason honors, and all are immensely talented. If there are any growing pains on the offense, this line will do a damn good job covering them up. An injury to center O’Dowd isn’t good news, but since it’ll likely be two games or less, it doesn’t sound like much to worry about.
The running game is pretty much always good, and this year will definitely not be an exception. Besides the great offensive line paving the way, they return three productive backs, and there will always be competition from the younger guys trying to push their way to the top. However the carries are split this year, they’ll once again be extremely productive.
The passing game, though is a question mark. The receivers will be excellent, led by Damian Williams, but they’re going to have to figure things out at quarterback. They’ve got a number of very talented guys on Corp, Barkley and Mustain (who currently is trailing the first two), but neither Corp nor Barkley have much of any experience, which means there will definitely be growing pains, and there’s a very real chance of seeing a substantial dropoff from what the Trojans are used to seeing from the position. With three talented guys, it’s hard to see the position turning bad, but it’s possible that, especially early in the year, quarterback will merely be average, which means that you shouldn’t assume the passing game will be a big strength for the Trojans this year until they prove it on the field.
Every year USC has holes to fill, and every year they find a way to fill them. This year, the biggest holes are on defense. You don’t improve by losing your coordinator, all of your linebackers, most of your defensive line, and most of your secondary. But this is still USC, there’s still amazing talent here, and they’ll still be a strong unit.
The pass defense will probably be the strength of the Trojan defense, with two very good defensive ends (one Frosh AA and one high school AA), a good corner in Josh Pinkard, and of course the great Taylor Mays at safety. The pass defense won’t be fantastic like last year, when picked off 19 passes, held three opponents to less than 100 yards through the air, and only once gave up more than 200, but they’ll still be very good.
The run D is going to slip a bit more, since they’re replacing their whole starting linebacker corps plus one of their tackles. Of course, the guys coming in are no slouches, as most were four or five star recruits, but there’s not as much experience here, and it’ll probably take a while before they really round into shape. Really good running teams ought to be able to have some success against this defense, especially early in the season. That’s not a good thing with early season road trips to Ohio St and Cal.
Potentially Huge Upset Win:
Potentially Huge Upset Loss:
They’ve got a number of potentially tough road games, against Ohio St, Cal, Notre Dame and Oregon. It wouldn’t be much of an upset to lose at Columbus, but the other three would be noteworthy upsets, and each could have a shot. I give Cal the best chance, but if Notre Dame can put it together, they’ve got enough talent on their roster to have a reasonable shot at the upset.
If you’re looking for a major reach, though, take a look at Washington. USC tends to struggle in Pac-10 road openers (lost @ Cal in 2003, barely won @ Stanford in 2004, barely won @ Washington in 2007, lost @ Oregon St in 2008), and the Huskies have a great running quarterback in Jake Locker, who if playing well might be able to give the Trojans fits and make it just as much of a contest as it was the last time they came to Seattle. It’s a major reach, of course, but I think the Huskies are going to score at least one big win this year, and if everything goes right for them, they could have a chance at this game.
Until proven otherwise, the Trojans are still the class of the Pac-10, but as the past few seasons have shown, they can definitely be beaten by the right team on the right day. There’s so much talent here, though, that even with a road-heavy schedule and an experience-light roster, they’re still the deserving favorites to win the league. It’ll be another 10 or 11 wins, and another trip to the BCS for the Trojans.
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