2006 Look Ahead: UCLA

The head-scratchers of the Pac-10 last year were UCLA, owners of a high-scoring offense and 10-2 final record - that left more doubters than believers. Given some of the big hits to graduation and the NFL, the narrow wins of 2005 could turn to black for the Bruins this fall.

UCLA Bruins

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ UCLA – September 30

Last Meeting: UCLA 31, Stanford 24 OT ('05)

Side-by-Side Stats: (UCLA/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 6/10
2005 Yards Per Point: 11.0/12.9
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game: 161/92
2005 Yards Per Carry: 4.4/2.6
2005 Passing Yards Per Game: 270/224
2005 Pass Completion Rate: 63.5/61.4
Returning Defensive Starters: 6/6
2005 Yards Per Point Allowed: 13.7/14.4
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 233/156
2005 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 5.4/4.0
2005 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 235/286
2005 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 59.4/60.8
2005 Record: 10-2/5-6

Second Down: Offense

The receivers are a strength, but replacing two Drews – quarterback Drew Olson and tailback Maurice Drew – will be a tall task.

The receiver corps is probably the deepest group in the conference outside of USC.  The departure of Marcedes Lewis (first-round draft pick to Jacksonville) at tight end is a loss, but Junior Taylor, who performed well in 2004 before sitting out most of last year with a ACL tear, returns healthy.  Senior Joe Cowan and juniors Brandon Breazell and Marcus Everett add speed and experience to the group.

The outlook is not as bright for the rest of the offense, where the theme seems to be "talented but inexperienced."  Nowhere is that more true than at quarterback, where quarterback Ben Olson, the top recruit in the country in 2002 (after a two-year Mormon mission, he transferred from BYU to UCLA) finally gets the reins of the offense.  He has only thrown four passes in his UCLA career, though, which is four more than any other returning quarterback.  Like most first-year starters at quarterback, Olson struggled with his decision-making this spring.  While he could certainly live up to the hype his junior and senior years, Ben Olson has no shot of entering the same stratosphere this season where Drew Olson lived last year (31-3 regular season touchdown-to-interception ratio, 64% accuracy, 3,198 yards).

At line, three starters depart: Pac-10 Honorable Mention tackle Ed Blanton, guard Robert Cleary and center Mike McCloskey.  While the rest of the two-deep returns, the current starting projection calls for a redshirt freshman (tackle Aleksey Lanis), a sophomore (guard Chris Joseph), two juniors (strongside tackle Noah Sutherland and guard Shannon Tevaga) and just one senior (center Robert Chai).

At tailback, junior Maurice Drew left early for the NFL (second-round to Jacksonville), but Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell look ready for the spotlight, combining for nearly 300 rushing yards in last year's Sun Bowl victory over Northwestern.  Though Markey and Bell will be a solid one-two punch, they are not in the elite category of Drew, who averaged nearly five yards per carry en route to 914 yards last season (he rarely got over 20 carries per game to keep him healthy) and housed three punts for touchdowns.  Here too, then, the Bruins figure to take a step backwards.

UCLA averaged a phenomenal 39 points per game (34 in Pac-10 games) en route to a 10-2 record last season, but a deeper analysis shows that those numbers are somewhat of a mirage.  The 11 yards per point is ridiculously efficient (last year, USC turned only 11.8 and Cal 13); the plus-six turnover margin was UCLA's best since 2000; and the Bruins were 4-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less.  In fact, the Bruins were actually outgained by over 70 yards per game in conference play and outscored by nearly five points per Pac-10 contest, yet still somehow managed to post a 6-2 conference record en route to their best season since 1998.  There is no reason why any of the fluky trends above should continue this year (turnovers, record in close games and yards-per-point especially show great year-to-year fluctuation, so a team that is especially lucky in these categories one year will likely crash back to Earth the next), so I see UCLA's offense and fortunes regressing toward the mean this year – spelling a far lower-scoring offense and close losses that had been wins in 2005.

All told, between the youth on the line, the departure of offensive coordinator Tom Cable and the amazing bounces of last year, this offense will suffer one of the greatest drop-offs in the nation.

Third Down: Defense

The front four should be stronger, but the back seven weaker.  Overall, I do not see this unit significantly better than last year's sieve that allowed opponents 34 points per game and Pac-10 foes 497 yards a contest.

Up front, a unit that allowed 5.4 yards per carry almost has to get better – it cannot get much worse.

Former head coach Bob Toledo did not sign a single defensive lineman in his last two years in L.A. (2000 and 2001) and the unit saw the predicted drop-off in 2004 (5.1 yards per carry allowed) and last season.  Thus, head coach Karl Dorrell has been forced to give underclassmen playing time the last two years, and while they certainly took their share of lumps, it should pay dividends this season.

Three juniors and a senior, Honorable Mention All-Pac 10 end Justin Hickman, figure to start, with the health of junior tackle Kevin Brown a question.  Bruin fans are also optimistic that new defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker and, especially, defensive line coach Todd Howard represent upgrades over the old regime.  Best-case scenario, though, is for this defensive line to become mediocre.

The picture is bleaker at linebacker, where all three of last year's starters, including defensive MVP Spencer Havner depart.  Good things are expected out of likely strongside starter John Hale, the first true frosh to start for the powder blue since 1999, but disciplinary issues may sideline him for the opener.  Similarly, likely weakside starter Eric McNeal may not qualify for fall ball.  The specific personnel is almost secondary (no pun intended) however: UCLA's linebackers, whoever they are, will struggle.

The back four loses two starters with little talent remaining from an already porous unit.  This has the makings of the worst passing defense in the Pac-10.  Trey Brown is the best corner and a solid starter, but corner Rodney Van needs to find consistency, hard hitting strong safety Chris Horton needs to stay healthy and free safety Dennis Keyes needs to get into better shape.  That is a lot of "needs," and with unproven backups, UCLA may be lucky to "hold" opponents to last year's 59.4% completion rate.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Every summer, if you took into account the expectations of fans across the country, every team would improve by two or three wins.  And, this year, across the Pac-10, there is indeed reason for optimism.  USC will be USC, California and Oregon should push for the conference title, the Arizonas should be improved, great things are expected from Stanford's offense, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  Well, if every team is as improved as we say, all those extra wins have to come at someone's expense.

UCLA does return a ton of talent, especially on offense, and a team does not just go from a 9-0 start to Pac-10 cellar dweller overnight.  But few programs in the country have losses this heavy (national top-ten quarterback and running back, the entire linebacking corps) and holes this wide (a quarterback with four passing attempts and an overmanned back seven) in their place.

With nine Pac-10 games on the schedule plus a visit to Notre Dame, I think this will be UCLA's first losing season since 1999.  But with only about six senior starters (obviously, an exact count is not possible in August), the Bruins could well be back to the top half of the league the following year.

2006 Regular Season Prediction:

5-7, 3-6 Pac-10 – first season without a bowl game since 2001

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