We evaluated UCLA's 2015 schedule when it was released in September, but now that we've had some time to really see UCLA this year, and also every other team in the Pac-12, we wanted to revisit the schedule and how we could see the conference shaking out next year.
First, if we had to do our quick guess at the Pac-12 conference rankings next year, it'd probably look something like this:
2. Arizona State
11. Oregon State
12. Washington State
General thoughts: Oregon should drop back to the pack a little bit without Marcus Mariota (even if something crazy happens, like Braxton Miller transferring to the Ducks with immediate eligibility). We actually don't think there is a whole lot of separation among the top six or so teams in the league, and while we're pretty confident about the bottom four teams in the league, it's really difficult to make a stab at who the top teams will be, and in what order they'll fall. Stanford looked good by the end of the year, and should return most of their young, gelling offensive line. We've got USC lower than most pre-season prognosticators likely will, but they'll forget that Steve Sarkisian is still USC's head coach, and we never will. UCLA returns most of its starters, but has to break in a new quarterback and a new inside linebacker and beating heart of the defense. The two Arizona schools, barring a coaching change, should be strong again, and we've put the Sun Devils as the No. 2 team because of the extra year of experience for their young defense and the return of Mike Bercovici, who looked good this year at quarterback. We could really go any way on the order of the top four teams in the Pac-12 South, though, so don't take too much from it.
So, now that we've seen each of these teams and have a pretty good feel for their quality next year, let's take a revised look at the 2015 schedule, and our thoughts (and wildly premature predictions!) on these games.
The Rose Bowl
Sat., Sept. 5th
In one of the biggest upsets of the 2014 season, Mike London retained his job as the Cavaliers' head coach thanks to a gutty 5-7 season (which was a nice improvement over 2013's 2-10 season). To hit that 5-7 record again, though, might be a tall order. Virginia loses a healthy portion of its defense, though the offense should be better than it was this year. This'll (most likely) be Josh Rosen's first game as a starter, but we think the Cavaliers will take a step back next year and should provide a comfortable start to Rosen's college career, particularly with the major improvement in the offensive line between the 2014 opener and the 2015 opener. UCLA wins (1-0)
Sam Boyd Stadium
Sat., Sept. 12th
The Rebels went with the always solid strategy of hiring a coach straight off the sidelines of a local high school, so that should work out well for them. Former Bishop Gorman head coach Tony Sanchez is still working on his staff, but unless he manages to hire Bill Belichick, we're pretty confident in UCLA's ability to win this game with Tracy Pierson playing quarterback, let alone any of the other options on the actual roster. Fun fact: UNLV pulled off the rare feat of going 2-11 this year, thanks to a road trip to Hawaii which gave the Rebels an extra game. UNLV won just two games, a 13-12 classic against Northern Colorado and an overtime win over Fresno State. Their average scoring margin was -16.6 points. In other words, they're terrible, and will still be terrible next year. UCLA wins (2-0).
The Rose Bowl
Sat., Sept. 19th
Somehow, BYU slipped into the schedule a few months ago, and it's probably going to be UCLA's toughest non-conference game. If Taysom Hill comes back completely healthy (which is a question mark -- he shredded every ligament in his knee and broke his leg in October of this year) that would go a long way for the Cougars, who never regained their early-season form after Hill's injury. BYU had a decent defense in 2014, and it's expected it should be fairly good again in 2015. UCLA should have enough to win this one, but it could become a defensive battle, and a pretty low-scoring affair. We'll call it for the Bruins, but we think this'll be a close game. UCLA wins (3-0).
Sat., Sept. 26th
This is really not the ideal way to start the conference season: on the road against a top-half opponent with a freshman quarterback at the helm. UCLA has shown a pretty solid ability to handle Rich Rodriguez' offense since Jim Mora has been in Westwood, but this'll be Anu Solomon's second year running the Wildcats' offense, and Rodriguez really hasn't had that kind of continuity yet in his run at Arizona. UCLA likely has more talent on both sides of the ball, but UCLA's inexperience at quarterback (no matter who starts) and Solomon's experience running Arizona's scheme could make the difference. We'll call this the first true 50/50 tossup game of the season. So, UCLA (3-0) with 1 tossup.
The Rose Bowl
Sat., Oct. 3rd
And then UCLA quickly follows that up with the second true tossup game of the season! Again, the talent and inexperience on both sides of the ball should make this a pretty even matchup between the two teams. UCLA, again, has more overall talent on both sides of the ball, but Arizona State has a more experienced quarterback and an excellent offensive scheme that should once again put up a good amount of points for the Sun Devils. With the added experience for ASU on defense, we think this will get back to the tradition of close games between the two teams after last season's anomaly. So, UCLA (3-0) with two tossups.
Oct. 4th through Oct. 14th
UCLA takes this one with ease, and very thankfully gets a full week off to prepare for the very different offensive attack of Stanford...
Thurs., Oct. 15th
...But it probably won't matter. Stanford should, once again, have a very strong defense, and the offense should be much improved after taking lumps early in the 2014 season due to inexperience on the offensive line. UCLA has not shown a great ability to deal with what Stanford brings to the table, and until the Bruins do, we can't in good conscience keep picking them to beat the Cardinal. With a true freshman at quarterback trying to deal with that defense, this could be a very rough game. We'll call this as the first true loss of the season. UCLA loses to fall to (3-1) with two tossups.
The Rose Bowl
Thurs., Oct. 22nd
UCLA follows up the Stanford Thursday night game with a second consecutive Thursday night game, this time at the Rose Bowl. The Pac-12 should never, ever schedule a Thursday night game in Los Angeles. Friday night is almost OK because people can legitimately just take the day off from work and turn it into a long weekend, but Thursdays are rough, and arguably the worst traffic day in Los Angeles. In any case, California should tick upward again with another year of experience for Jared Goff and most of his exciting receiving corps returning. We actually think this could be a pretty competitive game, but UCLA's talent on defense still far outpaces Cal's, which will ultimately prove the difference. Also, by this point, Rosen could also be hitting his stride after taking his lumps against Stanford. UCLA wins to go to (4-1) with two tossups.
The Rose Bowl
Sat., Oct. 31st
Just like this year, UCLA gets Cal and Colorado back-to-back. Colorado was spunky this year -- or as spunky as an 0-9 team can be in the Pac-12. The Buffaloes were a little unlucky, though, and we'd imagine they'll put together a couple of conference wins next year, but this won't be one of them. UCLA's talent on both sides of the ball is several orders of magnitude better than Colorado's, and Rosen, if he didn't hit his stride against Cal's defense, should hit it here against Colorado's. UCLA wins to go to (5-1) with two tossups.
Sat., Nov. 7th
UCLA heads back on the road to Oregon State, which can actually be a pretty tough trip most of the time. This coming year, though, the Beavers will field one of their least-talented teams in recent memory. A huge class of seniors graduates after this year, including longtime quarterback Sean Mannion, and there just isn't a ton of talent behind them, with the quarterback position in particular being pretty depleted. We're big fans of Gary Andersen, but it could be a year or two before he can really put his stamp on the program. Unless UCLA comes out completely flat, this should be a pretty big win for the Bruins, who'll go to (6-1) with two tossups.
The Rose Bowl
Sat., Nov. 14th
Wazzu loses Connor Halliday, Rickey Galvin, and Vince Mayle, which could knock the offense down a peg next year, which wouldn't be good, because the Cougars were altogether pretty terrible this past season. The defense was generally atrocious, allowing even mid-season Stanford to score 34 points. With former walk-on Luke Falk running the show at quarterback next year, we think the Cougs should be firmly in cupcake land. UCLA wins (7-1) with two tossups.
Sat., Nov. 21st
There's still some reason to believe Kyle Whittingham could have new stomping grounds next year, but regardless, Utah should be a fairly strong team again next year. The Utes lose a decent among of their defense, including elite pass rusher Nate Orchard, so they might take a step back in that department. But, even if you say Utah should take a step back and UCLA is demonstrably more talented, the date of the game could be the great equalizer. Utah in late November is no one's idea of an easy game, and it might very well be snowing. We'll throw this one in the tossup pile as well. So UCLA is (7-1) with three tossups now.
Sat., Nov. 28th
The Trojans might very well be favored coming into this game next year, unless the wheels have well and truly fallen off, which we don't really anticipate in year two of the Sarkisian era (come back to us in the third year). They do have a much tougher schedule than in 2014, with road games at ASU, Notre Dame, and Oregon, and have to face the double whammy of Stanford and Oregon in the same season, which UCLA has been gifted the last two years. USC goes at Oregon the week before UCLA, so both teams will have a tough road trip in the week prior. While we don't think much of Sarkisian as a coach, and think there's a real possibility Mora steals his lunch money year-in and year-out, the difference in experience at quarterback (5th year senior vs. true freshman) and the increasing talent level of the Trojans could move this into tossup territory. So, our final tally is UCLA at (7-1) with four tossups.
Looking at the season in a macro view, there are, by our estimation, two critical inflection points: the Arizona-ASU-Stanford stretch to start the conference season and the @Utah-@USC back-to-back to end it. If UCLA can split those four tossup games (the Arizonas, Utah, and USC) the team would finish 9-3 for the fourth consecutive year, but I'd assume most people would feel better about that result with a true freshman at quarterback rather than a redshirt junior. We'd say that's probably the most reasonable result, actually, with anywhere from 8-4 to 10-2 being completely believable as well. It'd take Rosen being actually better than we think he is going to be for UCLA to somehow go 11-1, winning all four of those tossups, and it'd take him being significantly worse than we think he is going to be for UCLA to somehow go 7-5, losing all four.
In terms of the conference race, ASU once again gets a pretty easy schedule, with the truly tough games being USC at home, Arizona at home, UCLA on the road, and Oregon at home, and we could see them running the table outside of those four. If they split those four tough games, we think they'll be 7-2 in conference, so we'll set that as the number to hit for USC, UCLA, and Arizona, and any other contenders in the South. Our most reasonable scenario (the 9-3 with three conference losses) would probably put UCLA on the outside of the race for the South, but with a few things breaking right, the Bruins could be right there for another chance at the Pac-12 Championship, and will be set up for another big run in 2016.