But, really, in college football, the primary determining factors in a season's outcome are sometimes out of the program's hands, or a matter of luck, especially in the second year of a coaching staff.
As we've said before, the biggest determining factors to a successful season in college football are the program's schedule, the team's experience and its health. Those are three things that, when a coaching staff is in its second year, they rarely have an impact on. Now, coaching can make a team a bit better – or for that matter a bit worse – than what it would have been, but that's about it.
As an aside – when judging a coaching staff's performance, you have to ask: Given the level of talent and experience of the team, and its schedule and health, did it over-achieve or under-achieve?
But that's for another discussion. We're here to go out on a limb and try to predict UCLA's season.
If taking into consideration those three factors – schedule, experience and health – in predicting UCLA's season, obviously we can only weigh in on two of them. It's difficult to predict the health of the team for the season in late August. Last season, actually, it was a rare pre-season when you could predict that UCLA would be beset with injury because it already was coming out of fall camp.
So far, UCLA's injury situation isn't too dire. No clear-cut starter has been injured. There are injuries that have been blows to the depth of the team, and those could contribute to depth issues later. But as of right now, in late August, UCLA's come out of fall camp relatively intact.
So, that leaves schedule and experience.
It's funny, Phil Steele, the long-time football guru who does season preview magazines, puts a great deal of emphasis on experience also. It's a sound idea and, more often than not, is a good predictor of a team's success in any given season. Steele, in forecasting the Bruins, cites how much more experienced the team will be, particularly its offensive line, from last season. Steele notes that UCLA, in 2008, had an offensive line with just 16 career starts, which was the 6th fewest in college football. To no fault of his own, Steele notes how among UCLA's OL for 2009 six of them have 5+ starts, and he asserts that that will be a key in UCLA's improved OL play.
The problem is, only one of those six guys is actually starting. Among UCLA's projected starters (and we're going to use Stan Hasiak here instead of Mike Harris), only one played a college football game last year. In fact, among all five starters, they are good for only 8 starts last season (with all of them coming from then-true freshman Jeff Baca), which has to be close to the lowest in college football.
Steele's theory doesn't take into consideration a scenario where, even though a unit is more experienced, they weren't very talented to begin with. So, what's better – the line projected to start for UCLA consisting of all the young, but more talented players, or one comprised of guys that have experience but aren't as talented?
The UCLA coaches, obviously, are going with talent, and we'll have to agree with them on it. Tbey sure have looked better in practice so far.
But, in really looking at it, Steele's theory on experience very well might hold up. Even though UCLA is more talented on the offensive line, its inexperience is going to be its primary limitation.
Then, apply the experience theory to the most important position on the field – the quarterback – and once again UCLA doesn't hold up well.
But the experience theory is meant to be taken as a whole, too. From position to position, the 2009 Bruins are more experienced – at wide receiver, tight end, and even running back. On defense, they are vastly more experienced than last year's unit. The defense replaces just two starters, and arguably with guys just as good or possibly better than last year's starters.
So, overall, as a team, the Bruins are improved in terms of experience for 2009. If they did have experience at quarterback and on the offensive line, we might be predicting a run at the Pac-10 title, in fact.
So, looking at the schedule, as we've written before, the Bruins' alternate every year generally between a tougher schedule and an easier schedule. Sometimes, given the ups and down of Pac-10 opponents, it's not always the case, but it generally holds true. It's based on every other year UCLA playing the tougher teams in the conference at home. All odd years UCLA plays the tougher teams at home, and this season it looks to again hold true.
This season UCLA gets Oregon, Cal and Arizona State – three programs that are usually among the toughest in the conference – at home. Last season they played all three on the road. This year the road games are at Stanford, at Arizona, at Oregon State, and at Washington State (Washington is at home).
So, looking at it from an experience and schedule standpoint, UCLA has a clear chance to be much better this season than last season.
So, here we go:
At home against a rebuilding San Diego State program you'd have to give the Bruins a win.
The next week UCLA travels to Tennessee and, even though Tennessee is in its first year with a new head coach, they still have an elite level of athletes. In Knoxville, in Neyland Stadium, packed with 110,000 fans, it'd be an amazing feat for a team with a redshirt freshman quarterback and a young offensive line to pull out a win.
Kansas State has seen Bill Snyder return to be its head coach, but he has quite a bit of rebuilding to do, and he's saying not to expect much this year. We'll take him at his word and mark this as a Bruin win.
After a week off, UCLA goes to Palo Alto to take on what should be an improved Stanford team, but still too young at too many positions. They are a bit like UCLA – with a lot of young talent but without much talent among its experienced players. But UCLA still has more talent.
Three weeks later, UCLA travels to face a rebuilding Arizona team. UCLA is probably better than both Stanford and Arizona but, again, on the road with a young offense, we'll give these two games a split.
But we're going to go out on a limb for the back-to-back home games sandwiched in between against Oregon and California. We'll say, with a home-field advantage, Prince in his fifth and sixth starts and beginning to get a feel for it, and the Bears and Ducks a bit over-rated, UCLA comes away with a split there, too.
That's 4-3. UCLA then goes on the road against Oregon State, which is always a tough place to play (Trojans anyone?), and the Beavers have the best running back in the league. We'll give that a road loss.
Washington at home is a win.
Washington State is the worst team in the conference, with just a handful of starters returning from a 2-11 team. Even on the road in Pullman in November we have to call this a Bruin win.
The game with Arizona State November 21st could shape up to be a big one for the UCLA program. A win very well could ensure a winning record for the Bruins. The Sun Devils have offensive issues, and could look like UCLA's offense from a year ago. This is a win for the Bruins.
UCLA will give USC a game this year at the Coliseum, but it's still not ready to beat the Trojans toe to toe.
So, that means a 7-5 record.
But since fans always think we're a bit too pessimistic, we're going to arbitrarily change that to 8-4. Why? For no apparent reason. Well, it's actually not farfetched to think UCLA could sweep Stanford and Arizona, or pull off an upset at Oregon State. In other words, there's plenty of wiggle room for an 8-4 to happen.
Also, this way if the team finishes at either 8-4 or 7-5 we'll take credit for being correct.