2011 Season Preview, Prediction

It's that time of year again, for Bruin Report Online to provide its educated guess about the fate of the football season. If you take our usual parameters -- experienced talent and schedule -- it's difficult to not foresee this being the turnaround year for the UCLA football program....

There are a number of factors that can be used to determine whether a season is successful or not.

Obviously there is the won/loss record. That is the ultimate for many observers. "Bottom line is to win, baby," is pretty much the attitude.

But for others it's about whether the team played to its capability or not, given its circumstances.

Now, which category the UCLA powers-that-be, the ones that will determine whether Rick Neuheisel keeps his job after this season, fall into is anyone's theory. From what we've heard, a decision on Rick Neuheisel's fate will take into consideration a great many factors, just not his win/loss record this season.

But we feel it won't come down to that for Neuheisel.

This year's team has an excellent chance at giving Neuheisel a good enough win/loss record to keep his job on just that merit alone. But we're pretty confident, after watching the team in fall camp, that the team will satisfy just about every element in determining whether the season was successful.

Well, every aspect except maybe its field goal kicking game.

Neuheisel clearly has his best team since being at UCLA. He's built it through a number of factors, namely good recruiting and bringing in what at least initially looks to be an upgrade in coaching quality.

Going into the season, too, he has been fortunate in perhaps the most influential aspect of any team's season – injuries. Heading into game week, the team hasn't suffered a major injury, to either a starter or anyone in the two-deep. Not one player has an injury that is projected to keep him out for the season or the majority of the season. That's a drastic change from Neuheisel's previous three seasons, particularly last season when UCLA was, at the same time, without a number of projected starters, impact players that were lost for the season.

In fact, UCLA is as deep as its been going into any season in the last decade. There hasn't been an August in recent memory when UCLA had so much talent in its two-deep, where you wouldn't flinch about the second-string getting significant playing time. In the past, with Neuheisel and with Karl Dorrell, many times UCLA had a fairly good player as a starter, but you cringed at the thought of his back-up getting on the field. Heck, many times you cringed at the prospect of the starter getting on the field. With how Neuheisel has recruited, and developed those recruits, that is no longer the case.

A number of years ago a couple of the UCLA beat writers, Brian Dohn and Robert Kuwada, and I used to try to find things to keep us entertained sitting in the Spaulding Field bleachers every night freezing as UCLA practiced deep into the fall. Every year one of our pastimes was to count the number of scholarship players on UCLA's roster that shouldn't have a UCLA scholarship. In the Dorrell years, we commonly made it into the 30s. In Neuheisel's first year, I think that number was trimed down into the 20s. The last couple of years it's been less and less. This season, Kuwada and I did it again, and we had to stretch to get to 4 or 5. That's significant. That means you literally have 20-30 players on the roster that can contribute that couldn't six years ago. That does wonders for your depth, and it's clear that it has.

Neuheisel's successful recruiting when he first got to UCLA, selling recruits on the promise of the program, is starting to pay off. Getting a top-ten national recruiting class in each of his first three recruiting classes translates into some very good talent that is now coming of age. Most of those players are now juniors, or redshirt sophomores, and have had enough time to develop to where they are now capable of contributing and making an impact.

The rest of the Pac-12, too, is not sleeping on this fact. A UCLA player told me that he has a few friends at other Pac-12 programs, and their coaches told them that UCLA is one of the most talented teams in the conference.

That talent, now maturing and having some experience, along with staying away from the injury bug, will give UCLA a successful season in 2011.

In this era of college football, teams now play 12 regular season games. Now, with the new Pac-12, a team could then get into the Pac-12 Conference Championship Game, and then also play in a bowl game. So, conceivably, a team could play 14 games. Combine that with the intensifying of the speed of the game, and the physicality and the athleticism of the players, there is far more chance for injury than ever before. College football has become a marathon, and it demands that teams have depth to help counter injuries.

We've maintained for a long time that the two biggest factors in college football success in any season are experienced talent and the team's schedule, but injuries have become such a huge factor. It's now vital for a team to be successful in any given season it has to be deep.

You can maybe fault Neuheisel for some mis-steps since he's been UCLA's head coach, but you have to give him an enormous amount of credit for his recruiting. To be candid, he didn't always have a great recruiting staff in those first few years, and many times UCLA's recruiting success was almost soley based on Neuheisel's recruiting ability. If Neuheisel does have a successful season and retains his job, and the UCLA program takes off, you'll be able to look back and attribute it to a few things – but none more influential than Neuheisel recruiting so well in his first few years, and that talent, as it came to maturity in 2011, saving him.

Perhaps the one aspect of the team where Neuheisel's recruiting ability hasn't been able to counteract attrition is on the offensive line. It would have been hard to do; Neuheisel would have had to recruit with the mindset that he was going to lose players to career-ending injuries, academic ineligibility and Mormon missions. It is a lesson to be learned, however: While attrition is a huge factor in college football, there's probably no place on a college football team where you have to double your recruiting efforts more to fight against attrition than on the offensive line.

We don't generally like to narrow down the factors why a team could be successful in any season to one big, determing factor. But if we had to, we'd say it's the performance of the offensive line this season, in particular its pass protection.

Here's the mantra: If UCLA's quarterbacks have time to throw, they'll get it done.

The pass protection in fall camp was spotty. It's hard to determine whether that was because the pass protection was very poor, or if it was because UCLA's pass rush was exceptional – or a combination of both. The pass pro has definitely improved over the course of fall practice – which isn't that difficult when it starts from the point it did, which was miserable.

It starts with the offensive line, which is probably the shallowest unit on the team. There are three certain starters – Sean Sheller at weakside tackle, Kai Maiava at center, and Mike Harris at strongside tackle. With sophomore Chris Ward out and day-to-day due to a sprained ankle, it looks pretty clear that the two starting guards will be Greg Capella and JC transfer Albert Cid. That breaks down to three veterans, with two tackles who aren't known for their great pass pro, and two new starters inside, one of them having only been in the program for a few weeks and another being the former back-up center. It doesn't inspire a great amount of confidence, especially in something that takes some work to master like pass protection.

But the word is that Jeff Baca is rehabbing at a faster rate than expected, and could be back within a few weeks. Adding Baca is adding UCLA's best offensive lineman, whether he plugs in at tackle or guard. With him, the UCLA OL appears differently; it now has four experienced guys and only one inexperienced one, and it then is quite a bit more talented. Last spring, when we were asked who might be the most important player on the roster for UCLA we said Jeff Baca, and we'll still hold to that.

It's just not about the offensive line when the issue is protecting the quarterback. There are other blockers who factor into the equation, like the tight-end, F-back and running back. It's essential that these positions provide top-of-the-line pass protection. Over the course of fall camp they have dramatically improved, to the point where, in the last week, they were doing well in picking up their blocking assignments.

The other and perhaps the biggest factor in the quarterback getting good protection is coaching and playcalling. It's quite a bit easier to protect the quarterback if the play-calling isn't predictable. It's also quite a bit easier to get time to throw if the launch point moves from time to time, and the offense utilizes quick drops. We've seen plenty of creativity in this regard this fall, with a good deal of variety using various methods to allow the quarterback to get off the pass, which is a drastic departure from last season when it seemed the quarterback, despite not being able to contain a pass rush, took the conventional five-step drop over and over, and on predictable passing downs. You have to like in practice what new Offensive Coordinator Mike Johnson, Pistol-expert Jim Mastro and Neuheisel have done with mixing it up and making it more difficult for opposing pass rushes to tee off. Now, whether we see that variety in the game and not just on the practice field is another thing.

The key element in all of this is the running game, of course. Without it, the passing game has no chance. In fall camp UCLA's running game has looked very good, not only in its run blocking but especially in the guys it has to run the ball. Junior Johnathan Franklin should compete for post-season honors; Derrick Coleman looked like a beast and was the star of the fall scrimmage; Malcolm Jones is stronger but leaner and quicker, and looks different than the freshman from last season when he was hampered by little injuries; and then there's the guy who might be the most talented among all of them, redshirt freshman Jordon James, who has been a standout at both tailback and the F-back spot this fall with his speed and quickness.

Among the other pass-catching skill positions, UCLA looks, well, deep. What has really enhanced that depth is the emergence of a few guys this fall that clearly are talented enough to have significant impacts this season – like Shaquelle Evans, Devin Lucien, and tight end Joseph Fauria.

And then there's the quarterback. The analysis of Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut has been endless, and we just recently did an in-depth one about the competition between the two. Regardless of who actually is named the starter, we have confidence in both of them, given what they've shown this fall. They have both displayed enough to be able to execute the position efficiently. Again, if UCLA's quarterbacks have time to throw, they'll get it done.

We have to say, though, what could be a huge factor in the season is not that either one of them is capable, but that both of them are capable. When is the last time UCLA went through a season using just one quarterback? It could be the key to the season that the coaching staff has spent so much time preparing both of them. Pundits could look back and think Neuheisel and Co. were geniuses for doing it. We'd be shocked if Prince wasn't named the starter, given the rep situation in practice, but we'll go out on a limb and say that Brehaut, at some point in the season, is going to get an opportunity, and with his "gamer" capability, he'll very well make the most of it.

The defense, quite simply, has the chance to be the best UCLA defense in recent memory, perhaps in the last 15-20 years even. (That sounds like a big statement, but to be blunt, UCLA hasn't had great defenses in the last 20 years – a few sprinkled here and there – so it's not really that dramatic of a statement.) It's not difficult to say that this is easily the most talented defense UCLA has had in the 13 years I've been covering UCLA football. Not in that time going into any season did UCLA have this kind of talent in its two-deep. In most of those years, Nate Chandler would be a starter at defensive tackle. Heck, in some of those years walk-on Tre Hale would be a starter.

There is one spot on the defense that does lack some depth – at least for the time being: cornerback. With Anthony Jefferson and Jamie Graham out, at least through September, it will be critical that Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price remain injury free. If, though, they remain healthy and UCLA then gets Jefferson and Graham back and able to contribute, UCLA should be deep on defense at every position.

What the depth does is not only help you against the inevitable injuries, but it enables the defense to play fresher. UCLA Defensive Coordinator Joe Tresey wants to play many guys, to be able to play fresh, and since he doesn't have a great deal of talent drop-off between the 1s and 2s, he can do it. Is anyone really going to be disappointed when Erick Kendricks comes in for Sean Westgate? Or Owamagbe Odighizuwa for Datone Jones? From what we've heard, Tresey privately is giddy. He can't believe the talent he inherited coming into UCLA in his first year as the DC.

That's the one element of the program where we're going to have to go out on a limb and make an educated guess – on the new defensive and offensive schemes. We've had spring practice and fall camp to go by, and many times what you see in spring and fall camp isn't exactly what you get on the field in September. What makes us give the seal of approval to Johnson, Mastro and the offense without having seen them play in the game are a few factors:

-- The team is one year more experienced in the offense.
-- Mastro's experience in the offense ties up so many little details that were combining to create problems last season.
-- Johnson clearly is more dynamic in his approach, the variety of plays and looks he utilizes, and has shown a more diverse and creative mindset in playcalling.
-- The passing game, which was the offense's bane last year, has been bolstered by Johnson being the wide receiver coach.

The defense, quite simply, under Tresey, has done all the right things in spring and fall – namely made putting pressure on the quarterback a high priority. Tresey has done exactly what the doctored order for UCLA's talent on defense – simplified it all and allowed them to play more and think less.

Of course, it's a big leap for Johnson and Tresey to do all of this in a game, rather than in practice against each other. While each has talked a good game and actually put a good game out on the practice field, there still has to be a bit of a wait-and-see feeling. The biggest question: Once they get in a game, Will Johnson and Tresey go conservative?

We'd have to think not, given all of the evidence from spring and fall.

Then there are those pesky things called opponents. Of course, as we've always maintained, so much of the success of the season depends on your schedule. And frankly UCLA's 2011 schedule looks appealing, and continues to look more appealing every day as you go around the league and get the fall practice reports of UCLA's opponents. The reports coming out of the Pac-12 fall camps have generally been one of injuries and lack of depth. Teams like Arizona and Oregon State are being hit by injury and thinness – and these are programs that UCLA has gone 1-5 against under Neuheisel. Instead of the Pac-10 being pretty good from top to bottom (except for Washington State) like it was last year, the Pac-12 in 2011 could have more programs that will be transitioning and re-building -- and vulnerable. And, fortunately for UCLA, two of those programs could be Arizona and Oregon State, two teams UCLA plays on the road in 2011.

Because UCLA needs help on the road. Under Neuheisel, in the Pac-10, the Bruins are 2-12 on the road. UCLA hasn't won a road game since November 2009, when it beat Washington State. In fact, its only two road wins under Neuheisel came against a 1-11 Washington State team in 2009, and 0-12 Washington in 2008.

So, the fact it doesn't have to play Oregon or Washington at all, much less on the road, and gets Cal and Arizona State at home, and perhaps two teams that could struggle – Arizona and Oregon State – on the road, is very favorable.

It's particularly significant that UCLA doesn't have to play perhaps the best team in the Pac-12 this year – Oregon. It also doesn't have to play Washington, which is better than not playing Washington State, since that is the closest thing to an automatic win in the league that there is. Probably the next best team in the conference is Arizona State, and the Bruins get the Sun Devils at the Rose Bowl.

Going through the schedule:

The Houston game is huge. It's a big game, not only because it's the first game of the season and could set the season's tone, but it could very well be pivotal in terms of wins/losses. Without giving away too much of our game preview for next week, we'll say UCLA's running game is the difference on a hot, humid day in Houston, and the Bruins win. 1-0.

We don't have to analyze it, but if UCLA can't get a win against San Jose State at home, we might as well stop this preview right here. 2-0.

It's a good time to be playing Texas. They are coming off a very uncharacteristic losing season and are trying to find their way back to the winning formula. They, however, don't have a quarterback and are getting used to practically an entirely new coaching staff. At this point, after two wins in which the Bruins probably didn't show too much offensively, UCLA lets it hang out at the Rose Bowl and wins. 3-0.

As we said, OSU could struggle this season. It has practically an entirely new defense, and last year's D was only good enough to post a 5-7 season. This is a big game for UCLA. A road win here signals that this year's Bruins are different. 4-0.

While we think Stanford could be one of the most over-rated teams in the country (#7?), it's going to still be difficult to go to Palo Alto and win. If UCLA does, then you can ratchet up your expectations even more. 4-1.

Washington State will be improved, and perhaps it won't be the conference doormat this year. But it's light years away from competing with UCLA's talent. 5-1.

Like we said, Arizona should struggle some this year. It's thin and young to begin with, and has been hit by injury. It does have a good QB. We'll say that UCLA loses one of the two games on the road to either Oregon State or Arizona, and we'll say this is the more likely one. 5-2.

Cal, with a new quarterback and quite a few new faces on defense, is a team that we just can't see having the talent or experience to do much better than its 5-7 last season. In the Rose Bowl UCLA wins. 6-2.

Arizona State, on the other hand, has some of the most experienced talent in the conference. ASU returns its entire offensive line from last season. If the Sun Devils stay healthy, they should be very good. It should be close at the Rose Bowl, but I'll go with ASU. 6-3.

On one hand, Utah has experience at quarterback and some talent in places, but on the other it's replacing some key players, especially in its secondary, and it has scrapped its spread offense for Norm Chow's. Just on that alone, I should give UCLA a win. But on the road in Salt Lake City in November, coming off a road loss against ASU, I'll say UCLA is off its game and drops this one. It could be the one game this season where the team under-achieves. 6-4.

Nothing like facing a program that hasn't had a winning season in six years, with a new, inexperienced head coach, a whole new defense and a great deal of youth – at home – to right the ship. UCLA beats Colorado. 7-4.

By November 26th, USC has probably had an average amount of injuries. Now, for a typical USC team that wouldn't be that big of an issue. But this isn't a typical USC team. It's extremely thin, and in many spots just one injury away from a walk-on. Then, also without any post season to be playing for, USC could be mentally checked out by this time. So we predict by late November the Trojans will be limping their way to the end of their sanctioned season. 8-4.

Now, remember, we don't judge a season solely by the win/loss result, but whether the team played to its capability week in and week out.

But put it this way: With how much experienced talented is on UCLA's roster, if they don't have a "successful" season, Neuheisel and his staff deserve to lose their jobs.

Not to get your hopes up too much, but if UCLA stays healthy and plays to its potential, we think this could be a conservative prediction. The Bruins very well could get more than 8 regular-season wins. It's a season that has a very good chance to strongly send a signal to the college football world – that the UCLA football program is back.

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