There is no real blueprint for where UCLA is right now. For the first time since Jim Mora’s first year, the Bruins were not preseason national title dark horses, and over the first four games of the season they have proven that lack of faith in their abilities correct. As we wrote in the season preview, however, the weak conference schedule means that even a not-elite UCLA team has a pretty solid shot at the conference title, and the rest of the division’s weaknesses make a Pac 12 South title still very much in play. Had the Bruins pulled out the game against Stanford that for 58 minutes they deserved to win, they would be in the driver’s seat in the division. Unfortunately, they were unable to close the deal and thus must chase Utah and Arizona State for the right to what would be quite an interesting rematch.
Back to that lack of a blueprint: for the last three years, bad losses have forced the Bruins into must-win de facto playoffs for the division, and each time they have failed near the final hurdle (ASU in 2013, Stanford in 2014, Southern Cal in 2015). This time, since the rest of the division is so weak we cannot say for certain that the Bruins must win out—in fact they can almost certainly afford another loss, as long as it doesn’t come against Utah (the Utes have a remarkably weak schedule that misses Stanford and Washington State and gets Washington and Oregon at home). Last week, UCLA showed that it is worthy of being in the conversation for the Pac-12 title. Over the next eight games, it must earn its way back into contention. That starts Saturday night against Arizona.
As in previous years, we track the following stats:
- Yards Per Stop: A measure of efficiency
- Yards Per Play: A measure of explosiveness
- Points Per Drive and Points Per Trip Inside the 40: A measure of scoring proficiency
- Field Position Margin
- Turnover Margin
UCLA Offense/Arizona Defense
This is truly the resistible force against the movable object. The UCLA offense has played three good quarters all year (fourth quarter vs. Texas A&M, first half vs. UNLV), and therefore its stats are pretty mediocre. The Bruins are not explosive, not efficient, and not good at scoring, languishing in the mediocre Top 100 ranking tier in all three of those metrics. They are improving at taking advantage of scoring opportunities, but they are not doing a good enough job of creating those opportunities in the first place—they only broke the Stanford 40 yard line three times.
Fellow BRO bruwinning has gone back and charted every play thus far, and it appears the Bruins have a second down problem. On first and third down, UCLA has success rates of 42.4% and 44.6%, respectively, but on second down, the success rate falls to 39.8%. When we break it out by run and pass, the run is successful on 34.8% of second downs, while the pass is successful 43.1% of second downs. The play calling has actually been fairly balanced, with 5 more passes called on second down than run—it may, however, be time to abandon this balance on second down. First down runs have been similarly weak, with 34.3% of runs successful compared to 49.2% of passes. For the UCLA offense to improve, it must improve on first and (especially) second down, and to do that it should consider tilting the balance towards more passes.
The Arizona defense is mediocre as usual. Their stats are a mirror of the UCLA offense thus far—in the mediocre Top 100 tier across the board. Their philosophy is actually similar to the UCLA defense; according to Football Study Hall the Wildcats are 17th in explosiveness allowed but 119th in efficiency allowed. This philosophy has not reaped similar results, however, and it will be interesting to see if the Bruins can replicate last year’s smashing success (55 points in front of the Gameday crew!) against this year’s Scooby-less Arizona.
The Bruin defense has now provided two straight weeks of 58 minutes of utter dominance and 2 minutes of weakness. As a result, the current statistical profile of the defense is pretty good, but not great. They are in the just-ok Top 50 tier for efficiency prevention and points prevention (a reminder—that game winning drive for Stanford somehow lasted TEN plays), and are in the very good Top 25 tier for preventing explosiveness. They have done a much better job of tightening up once an opponent gets in scoring position after the first two games, and have been downright unMoralike in their ability to force turnovers. There is absolutely no rest for what must be a very weary defense, because over the next few weeks they play some dynamite offenses.
Even excluding their game against Grambling, Arizona’s offense has been very good this year, with Top 25 level efficiency and scoring statistics (Yards Per Stop and Points Per Drive) and elite Top 10 level explosiveness and scoring efficiency stats (Yards Per Play and Points Per Trip Inside the 40). UCLA has often struggled with the zone read, and Rich Rodriguez is one of the inventors of its modern form. Despite being a blowout win, last year’s game showed the first real cracks in the Bruin defense’s façade, so it will be interesting to see if a much improved UCLA defense is able to play as well as it did two years ago at the Rose Bowl against Arizona, when it put in perhaps the finest defensive performance of the Mora era.
Arizona is pretty weak at the field position game, with an Average Field Position Margin twice as bad as even UCLA’s mediocre showing. It will be interesting to see if somebody besides Ishmael Adams gets an opportunity to return kicks for the Bruins—Ish just hasn’t looked particularly dangerous on punt or kick returns this year. Arizona forced an incredible six turnovers against Grambling, but against the FBS they have a margin of -2.
The Massey College Football Ranking Composite, taking 87 different rating systems into account, has UCLA as the #33 team in college football, while Arizona is #69. The Bruins’ rankings range from #14 to #82 with a standard deviation of 12.10. This standard deviation is a little lower than it is for most teams with similar ranking levels, meaning there is pretty strong agreement that this is where UCLA belongs right now. The Wildcats’ rankings range from #20 to #100, with a standard deviation of 14.74. This standard deviation is about the same as most teams at the same ranking level, meaning there is a fair amount of consensus that this is where Arizona belongs.
Using Brian Fremeau’s FEI ratings, FEI predicts a 40-15 UCLA win. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ predicts a 41-30 Bruin victory.
9 AM Slot: In a relatively weak breakfast slot, the best game is probably Texas at Oklahoma State (average Massey Rating: 50), though the best Massey rating is Miami at Georgia Tech (average rating: 27).
Noon Slot: Things get good at midday, with a huge B1G battle between Wisconsin and Michigan (average rating:6.5).
Early Evening Slot: The other big national matchup of the day is Louisville vs. Clemson (average rating: 4.5), though Bruin fans with hopes of getting to Santa Clara should probably keep their eyes on Arizona State-Southern Cal (average rating: 36).
#Pac12AfterDark Slot: The Bruins are the latest Pac-12 game of the day. The healing begins now.
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