Having watched every minute of practice in San Bernardino and, actually, every practice since the team returned to Westwood, we have a pretty good opinion of this 2015 UCLA team. But the Bruins are not bullet-proof, by any means, and there are a few aspects of the team that absolutely remain unknown -- and will have to get known during the season if this team is to be in contention for the Pac-12.
1. How Quickly Will Josh Rosen Develop?
This is really the key to the entire season, and we can not, in any sort of real way, project how he'll develop over the course of the next three months. Rosen is extraordinarily advanced for a quarterback prospect, but quarterback is a singular position, and even similar players can progress at drastically different rates. You can reasonably expect that UCLA can get through Virginia and UNLV with the version of Rosen we've seen in practice through the last few weeks, but to get through BYU, and then the meat of the Pac-12 schedule, he'll need to make some strides. That obviously can happen, and if we were going to guess (as we did in the season preview) we imagine it will happen, but it's far from certain. By the end of the season, Rosen will have to clearly be an above-average Pac-12 quarterback if UCLA is going to win the Pac-12 South.
2. Is the offensive line really as good as it seems to be?
One of the toughest things to gauge in practice is the relative quality of different units. If UCLA's wide receivers looked good in camp, does that mean the receivers are good, or does that mean the defensive backs are bad? We liked what we saw out of the offensive line throughout most of fall camp, both from a physical perspective and from how they were able to deal with their defensive line counterparts in one-on-ones and 11-on-11. We're completely comfortable saying that the offensive line is the best it's been in a while, because we're equally comfortable saying the defensive line is pretty good. But the question is exactly how good the offensive line is, and that's still an unknown. With Josh Rosen starting as a true freshman, and given the relative simplicity of UCLA's offensive scheme, simply "good" offensive line play might not be enough for the Bruins to get all the way to a Pac-12 title game. For this offense to consistently score points against the likes of Stanford, Utah, and BYU -- the best defenses UCLA will play this year -- the offensive line is likely going to have to be a dominant force, and that's absolutely still an unknown.
3. Will Tom Bradley finally bring an elite scheme and play-calling to UCLA?
A poster brought this up on the message board, and it's a good point: just because we saw Bradley bring a good deal of pressure in practices throughout fall camp doesn't mean, necessarily, that he will bring a good deal of pressure in games. It's a point with some precedence, too, since over the years there are things we've seen in practice that never made it to a game. But we'll go out on on a slight limb and believe Bradley will, since it would seem somewhat foolish to practice a certain way and then play an entirely different way, and dedicate the amount of time in practice that they did to different looks and pressures. But, again, weirder things have happened in UCLA's past. UCLA has had very good, if not elite, talent on the defensive side of the ball for each of the last three years, but the Bruins have produced defenses that would be rated somewhere between average and above average. If Bradley is the real deal, we could see one of the best UCLA's defenses in a long time this season. And a big sub-set question here: Can UCLA field a defense that can match up schematically to Stanford? You'd have to think the former architect of Penn State's defense would be the best man for the job.
Tom Bradley with Jim Mora
4. Was it the offense, or was it Brett Hundley?
First, let's be sure to point out that Noel Mazzone's offense has been absurdly productive at UCLA. The Bruins have put up points and yards at a clip which would make fans who sat through Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel weep tears of hot rage for what they subjected themselves to for so many years. Second, let's also point out that Brett Hundley, by pretty much any measure, was a top 5 quarterback in UCLA history and was a huge, integral part of the 29 wins UCLA has had over the last three years. Let us not forget what it was like to watch years of UCLA football without effective quarterback play.
That said, UCLA's offense has had a worrying tendency to not just struggle against the best defenses in the Pac-12, but to seemingly shut down altogether. Against Utah the last few years, UCLA has gone to an absurdly run-heavy, conservative style of play, and the same has been largely true against Stanford and Oregon. There are two schools of thought as to why this is. First, Brett Hundley struggled to make quick decisions against the best defenses in the conference, and so an effort was made to simplify the game plans in those games. Second, the offensive scheme just doesn't have enough built into it to succeed consistently against the best defenses in the conference, and those defenses did a great job of eliminating UCLA's short passing game, which left the Bruins with very little to work with.
Legitimately, we don't have a clear idea which school of thought is correct, or if the answer is some combination of the two. This year should give us a good deal of data pointing in one direction or the other.
5. How good is the Pac-12 really?
The schedule, and how good the teams on it turn out to be, is a very significant unknown. The Pac-12 is getting a good deal of hype heading into the season as possibly the best conference in the country, but there's a chance the league is a little down this year. Yes, there are a lot of teams in the above average to very good range, but there are also three or four pretty bad teams in Washington, Washington State, Colorado, and Oregon State. The top tier of the conference might not be at the heights it once was either, with Oregon (no Mariota), Stanford (7 defensive starters gone), USC (Sarkisian), Arizona State (no receivers, new QB), and UCLA (true freshman at QB) all having serious questions to answer. There is seemingly a good deal of parity between at least the top seven or so teams, but that's more a case of the elite teams (Oregon, Stanford) coming back to the pack then the pack rising to meet them.
The point is, the Pac-12 doesn't appear, at this early juncture, to have an absolute buzz-saw at the top of the heap. If Oregon, or Stanford, or USC, somehow, turns out to be an elite team, that would obviously inhibit UCLA's chances of winning the conference, but right now, it doesn't look like there's an obvious team at the top.
And even if there isn't that one truly elite team, the schedule is cumulative: It would make it considerably difficult for the Bruins if Stanford and USC are actually pretty good; if ASU is a top 15-type team; Arizona doesn't really drop off; Utah is about as good as they were last year; and then there are some surprises -- like a few from Cal, Washington State, Colorado and Oregon State actually being better than expected. Conversely, if Cal, Washington State, Colorado and Oregon State aren't very good, as expected, and just a couple from Stanford, USC, ASU, Arizona and Utah are considerably worse than expected, it could make UCLA's path to the Pac-12 championship quite a bit easier than it looks now.