Fresh off the news that Josh Rosen is probably done for the season, the Bruins travel to Boulder to try to derail one of 2016’s bright spots, the legitimately good (and playing a second string Freshman) Colorado Buffaloes. The Buffaloes do very well in our conference ratings and are currently in the conversation for a New Year’s Six bowl. Before the Utah game, we pointed towards the fun, occasionally dominant Bruin defense as something to focus on in a dismal season, so of course the defense went out and had the worst performance against the run of any UCLA team in recent memory. It’s getting tougher and tougher to find reasons to tune in, so the best I can do this week: before the 2003 UCLA at Colorado game the Buff fans were ruder than any fans I have ever experienced. Buffalo fans cannot be allowed to get happy and arrogant again, so the Bruins must beat Colorado for the good of the conference.
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/Colorado Defense
Only UCLA football could switch to an all-out passing attack two weeks after its star quarterback suffered a potentially season-ending injury. As it is, the offense was reasonably effective against a short-handed Utah defense. Comparative to previous games, it felt like the return of the Cade McNown 1997-1998 offenses, even if statistically it was probably a little closer to the Cory Paus years. For the season, the Bruin offense is still mired deep in the mediocre Top 100 tier of our rankings in every statistic but Points Per Trip Inside the 40, where they are in the just-ok Top 50 tier.
Colorado’s resurgence has really been led by their defense this season, where the Buffs’ stats are every bit as impressive as the Bruin defense’s stats. They are slightly better at preventing efficiency than they are at preventing explosiveness, but they are very good at both. If the Buffaloes have a weakness on defense, it is explosive plays in the run game. Unfortunately, that was Arizona State’s weakness as well, and the Bruins could not come close to taking advantage. This will be a tough game for the UCLA offense. If the Bruins are to have any success, they should look for the big play.
Assuming the UCLA defense has covered the fissures that appeared against the Utah run game, this should be a fun matchup. The Colorado offense is very good, though not elite by any standard, and it is probably better at passing the ball than it is at running. This should feed into the strength of the very-good UCLA defense, as Takkarist McKinley and the UCLA secondary have not really been tested in several weeks and is absolutely one of the elite pass defenses in the country. Football Study Hall has the Bruin defense as 6th in the country in big play prevention in the passing game and 16th in passing success rate allowed. Colorado is now, incredibly, the second-highest ranked team on the UCLA schedule using Football Outsiders’ ratings (behind future national champion and second place in their own division Texas A&M), but it will be very difficult for their offense to have the passing success it has relied upon this season.
The passing game is not all there is to the story, however. Last season, a bad Colorado team almost came into the Rose Bowl and won despite averaging a miniscule amount of yards per play because they really did get four yards on dang near every play. The UCLA run defense has shown itself to be vulnerable after the Utah game, so the just-ok Colorado run game (40th in the country in rushing success rate) might be a problem if the gaps have not been filled. This will be a very important game for Kenny Young—was his backsliding against Utah a one game aberration or a harbinger of bad things to come? We still believe in the UCLA defense, but their ability to shut down the run game will be key to the Bruins potentially pulling the upset.
For once, the Bruins are not facing a team that relies on field position, which is nice because UCLA’s recent propensity to get blown out in the field position game is the biggest difference between a 5-3 team still in the thick of the conference race and the 3-5 disaster that has happened. Turnovers will again be incredibly important, as Mike Fafaul simply must stop giving the ball to the other team. Given a full season, he would be on pace to annihilate Kevin Craft’s interception record. Neither team has returned a kickoff or punt for a touchdown this season.
The Massey College Football Ranking Composite, taking 108 different rating systems into account, has UCLA as the #53 (ughhhhhh) team in college football, while Colorado is #12. The Bruins’ rankings range from #20 to #93 with a standard deviation of 17.27. This standard deviation is very high compared to teams with similar ranking levels, meaning there is a lot of disagreement on where UCLA belongs right now. The Buffaloes’ rankings range from #6 to #41, with a standard deviation of 6.13. 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 Colorado belongs.
Using Brian Fremeau’s FEI ratings, FEI gives Colorado a 78% chance of victory. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ predicts a 35-21 Colorado victory.
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