First, the obvious: UCLA will be breaking in a new starter at quarterback for the first time since 2012. Whether that’s going to be Josh Rosen, Jerry Neuheisel, Asiantii Woulard, or Aaron Sharp is up for some debate, sure, but we’re going to go with Rosen. The tea leaves seem to point that way, and there’s a fair argument to make that he’d be the No. 2 guy right now if he leapt from St. John Bosco to UCLA today. But, whichever way, UCLA will have a new starter, and there will likely be some growing pains.
That said, the rest of the team should be deep and experienced. On defense, the Bruins are on track to lose just Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Jefferson from the starting group, as long as no one decides to go pro or transfer. On offense, UCLA loses Hundley, obviously, and then Malcolm Bunche and Jordon James, but the rest of the team is on track to return. So, whomever the new starter is at quarterback will have some real pieces to work with, and might not face as daunting a task as perhaps Hundley did the last few years.
Crazy, speculative conclusion: Given the personnel losses, we’d expect the offense to probably take a small step back, but the defense to remain about as talented as it is currently, and possibly improve as a unit. It’s early, obviously, and we have only the vaguest idea what impact freshmen are coming in who could help, but that’s how it looks at the moment.
So, with that said, it’s time to look at the schedule.
Sept. 5 Virginia
UCLA’s first opponent next year will be Virginia at the Rose Bowl, which should be decidedly different from Virginia in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers look like they’re poised to have a decent enough season this year, which could keep Mike London from being fired.
Sept. 12 at UNLV
The Rebels lose ten starters from this year’s not-very-good team. It’s the first road game for the new quarterback, but that’s about the only reason this game would be a challenge.
Sept. 19 BYU
Here’s where things get tricky. BYU really doesn’t lose all that much after this year, and most importantly, the Cougars probably return Taysom Hill, the athletic quarterback who has torn up college football with his arm and legs over the last two years. BYU should be a ranked team in the preseason, since it looks unlikely that they will lose more than a couple of games this year. We could easily see this game being a difficult one for whoever the new starter is at quarterback, but UCLA’s defense, with its experience and athleticism, should be able to limit BYU’s offense. This could be a pretty difficult game for UCLA, and probably the first truly difficult one of the year.
Sept. 26 at Arizona
UCLA follows BYU with its first true road test of the year, having to go at Arizona and its second-year quarterback Anu Solomon. The Wildcats do lose a fair amount in the offseason, with five starters leaving from the offense, including three starters on the offensive line, so UCLA will have the advantage in experience. For UCLA’s purposes, it’s also probably better to go on the road to Arizona than Arizona State, even next year, so you’d have to say this is a scheduling advantage over 2014.
Oct. 3 Arizona State
The Sun Devils and the Bruins have developed quite the rivalry over the last couple of years, and it’s fitting that both teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks in the same year. Arizona State’s defense should be improved in year two after having eight new starters in 2014, but the offense should take a step back without Taylor Kelly leading the show. These games have been extraordinarily close over the last two years, and we would have to figure this will also be a tough game. The Bruins do get the benefit of playing the Sun Devils at home, though, which could make a big difference.
Oct. 10 BYE
A pretty convenient time for a bye. UCLA will have gotten a long look at its quarterback in several different situations — big non-conference game, on the road in conference, against a rival — and will be able to make some adjustments before hitting the meat of the difficult part of the schedule.
Oct. 15 at Stanford (Thurs.)
UCLA has to go at Stanford, on a Thursday night, with the Cardinal once again probably rolling with an experienced offensive line that should be able to open holes in most defenses. On the flip side, Stanford’s front seven on defense does lose a significant amount of its experience, but we’d have to imagine that the Cardinal will still be able to field a pretty competitive defense, even if it doesn’t climb to the elite levels of the last few years. Just looking at it now, this could be a real linchpin game for the season — win, and UCLA has a chance to get to 10 wins or more. It’s probably the most or second-most difficult game on the schedule, depending on how you feel about USC.
Oct. 22 California (Thurs.)
The Bears should be improved again after improving a bit this year, but even with a high-level offense, California’s defense could be a big limiting factor. UCLA also gets Cal at home, and home-field advantage has notoriously been the deciding factor in this series for the last twenty years or so. Coming after the brutal game in Palo Alto, this one should be a nice respite.
Oct. 31 Colorado
The Buffaloes have had a tough time under Mike MacIntyre over the last two years, and there’s little reason to expect that they’ll finally break through next year. There simply aren’t enough wins to go around in the Pac-12, even for a well-coached team. This should be a nice tuneup for UCLA heading into another road trip.
Nov. 7 at Oregon State
Here’s where things get really fun for UCLA fans. Instead of having to play Oregon, like the last two years, the Bruins get what should be a pretty miserable Beavers team. Most of Oregon State’s defense graduates, as does Sean Mannion, and the cupboard isn’t exactly full in Corvallis. Maybe Mike Riley and the Beavers will have figured out something by this point in the year, but there really isn’t much to work with.
And then, as if avoiding Oregon weren’t enough, UCLA also avoids Washington in year two of Chris Petersen, and instead gets to face Mike Leach and what should be a mediocre Cougars team with a new quarterback. That both games come in the critical month of November, when UCLA should be about as beat up as it gets, is huge.
Nov. 21 at Utah
This could be a sneakily tough game. Utah is showing signs of real life this year, and could be a dark horse in the Pac-12 South by 2015. Travis Wilson, the quarterback, will return for his final year, and the offense as a whole should be pretty good, with four starting offensive linemen returning. Going at Utah in November is also not ideal, as this could easily be a snow game. Along with Stanford, USC, and BYU, this is probably in the group of four toughest games of the season.
Nov. 28 at USC
This is probably the best USC team that UCLA will have faced in the Mora era. The Trojans will have had a full recruiting class by this point, filled with several impact freshmen, and Cody Kessler will be in his senior year. By this point of the season, though, UCLA’s quarterback will have had a full season under his belt and should be playing with a good deal of confidence after getting through the Bruins’ relatively weak schedule mostly unscathed. It definitely shapes up to be one of the two toughest games on the schedule.
So, in looking at it, UCLA gets a much easier schedule than its had the last two years. Obviously, in conference, the Bruins avoid Oregon and Washington, which takes two likely tossups (at best) and turns them into two almost sure wins. But then, in non-conference, UCLA plays two home games, rather than two road games, and the one road game is against probably UCLA’s weakest opponent of the year.
In short, there’s very little way this could be a better schedule for a first-year quarterback. With the way the schedule sets up, winning fewer than nine games actually looks like it would take some significant disappointment on either side of the ball — either the offense completely failing with a new quarterback at the helm, or the defense struggling to match its considerable talent with an equal level of production. As it stands, 9 to 10 wins with that schedule looks like the early bench mark.
But as we said up top, our speculation is based on the premise that the offense will take a step back with a new quarterback at the helm. There’s a chance that might not be the case — Rosen (or whoever) won’t need to be as good as Hundley immediately, because the offense surrounding him should be better than the offense surrounding Hundley. If he can just play at some level above average, there’s a chance that the offense could be as good as it is this year, and perhaps even a chance that it will improve. If that happens, it’s hard to put a real cap on the potential win totals for 2015, especially given the weakness of the schedule.
As we’ve been saying now for years, it’s a new era, where the expectation going into every year is that UCLA will win nine or ten games. As long as UCLA keeps recruiting at a high level and developing talent, the window for UCLA should remain open for the foreseeable future.