Season Preview and Prediction

It's a season where you could easily see UCLA win almost every game or lose every game. There are some critical factors, including the offensive line and quarterback, and the overall depth of talent Rick Neuheisel has built...

Last August, I began my season preview and prediction with this:

"Most of the time, whether a season is deemed successful or not is based soley on whether a team finishes with a winning record.

"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."

That just about sums it up, and should be the beginning of every season prediction.

For the 2010 Bruin season, it will all be about the program's schedule, the players' experience and their health.

Let's start with health.

If we look at the players who we would have projected to be starters for this season at the end of the 2009 season, as of this writing, UCLA is without six starters for the Kansas State game, and four of those would have been on the offensive line.

And another is the first-string quarterback.

Teams that are incredibly deep would be impacted by such a turn of events and, while UCLA isn't nearly as thin as it was in Rick Neuheisel's first two seasons, it's still not greatly deep in experienced talent.

There are injuries that affect a team in ways that many casual observers can't detect. Kai Maiava, UCLA's starting center, is a true leader of the offensive line and one of the guys on the team that has a true warrior mentality. The loss of Maiava for probably two months due to his fractured ankle impacts the team in more ways than merely his play on the field.

And then when you lose one of your projected defensive stars like DE Datone Jones (to a fractured foot), it causes a ripple effect in your depth chart. With Jones, UCLA looked like it would have a defensive line on the verge of coming into its own, a unit with a decent amount of game experience that was looking for some inexperienced talent to step up. Now, without Jones, it looks completely different in terms of experience, looking more like a young and inexperienced unit that is bound to have to growing pains.

And that's just talking the starters; there is also some damage that's been done to the team's overall depth. Injuries (and attrition, if that's what we'll call Xavier Su'a-Filo and the Three Freshmen) have taken its toll on what very well could have been a decently deep roster in Neuheisel's third season.

But what can you do? It's not something you blame the coaching staff for at all. So, if you're a sophisticated fan, and not just a knee-jerk one, you'd take this into consideration when judging Neuheisel's third season as UCLA's head coach.

Of course, you'll have your faction that will always say, "Hey, it's part of the game. No excuses. The program should be judged by its production on the field."

And Neuheisel himself might even say that.

But when it comes to Neuheisel's job performance – and job security – the powers-that-be who are doing the real judging and evaluating are taking it into consideration.

On the other hand, UCLA clearly isn't as thin as it was the last two seasons. Incredibly, with the loss of five offensive linemen that very well could have been projected to be starters this season, UCLA will field five seniors as its starting offensive line next Saturday against Kansas State. And these five guys aren't just career back-ups but all, at some time, have been starters at UCLA. In one little microcosm, that's a considerable advancement for the program right there. If this were Neuheisel's first two seasons, he'd definitely, out of necessity, be plugging in at least a couple freshmen and/or redshirt freshmen to the starting OL at this point.

Of course, it's easy to sit around and play the what-if game with the offensive line. But with these five seniors, it's not as if there's a guy among them that you would really question whether he's, at the very least, solid. And the experience of the five is really a significant factor. If Neuheisel and Offensive Line Coach Bob Palcic were, indeed, plugging in a couple of freshmen, there'd be quite a bit more missed assignments on the OL during fall practice – more general disarray. But these five guys – Sean Sheller (LT), Darius Savage (LG), Ryan Taylor (C), Eddie Williams (RG) and Micah Kia (RT) – have been relatively seamless, due mostly to their experience. So, while you might be able to play the what-if in terms of potential talent UCLA could have had on the offensive line, you aren't playing that game in terms of experience. It's definitely been the biggest contributing factor to the offensive line generally looking the best it ever has during fall camp under Neuheisel.

But with the loss of so many bodies, it does put the OL in a precarious position in terms of injury and depth. It is, really, one injury away from having to dip into its under-experienced OL pool. With two-year starting tackle Mike Harris out of the Kansas State game due to a suspension, true freshman Chris Ward is probably the OL's sixth guy at this time.

So, the health of the offensive line is really a huge factor for the season. When Harris returns, the line will have six experienced guys, and the coaching staff is keeping its fingers crossed that it can get through the season with those six guys. If one – or some – of those six go down, it will be the biggest determining factor of UCLA's success other than the performance of its quarterback.

Which leads us to…

Kevin Prince.

As we've written, he was looking fantastic in the first few days of fall camp, but then he went down with a strained oblique and really hasn't returned to even near-full-strength since. While second-stringer Richard Brehaut has clearly improved from the increased reps in Prince's absense, UCLA really needs Prince healthy for a majority of the season if it hopes to have a successful one.

As we've been saying since the end of last season, the key to UCLA's season in 2010 is going to be the quarterback and the offensive line, and nothing has changed. If Prince and the OL can stay healthy and on the field, the Bruins could have a good chance to put together a respectable record. If not, the wheels could come off the cart.

What's going to be key is the pass protection UCLA provides its quarterback. If UCLA gets good pass protection, it's not too much of a stretch to envision Brehaut being solid enough at quarterback, if he were pressed into major duty.

Perhaps we shouldn't limit it to just pass protection, but call it overall offensive line play – because if UCLA produces even just a solid running game this season, and thus a balanced attack, the quarterback position should have enough talent, whether it's Prince or Brehaut, to be effective.

Now, in fall camp, the offensive line has been more effective this year than ever in the last several seasons. It's difficult to ascertain why – if it's a matter of this OL actually being pretty good, with so much experience, or whether it's the Pistol offense, or just that this year's defensive line just isn't as good as it's been in previous years. It very well might be a combination of all of it.

We've now seen the Pistol enough to go out on a bit of a limb and say that it gets the BRO seal or approval. That's something, given we haven't seen it function in one game (thus – out on a limb). But the core of the offensive scheme is deception, and that makes it a dynamic one. At the very least, even if a play fails, you'll be able to surmise a greater intention than so often with the West Coast Offense. At least, if the Pistol is unsuccessful, it's attempting to exploit the offense's inherent advantage of surprise. The West Coast Offense's approach is: You know what we're going to do, but we're going to do it so well you won't be able to stop us. But, UCLA's versions of it, under Karl Dorrell and Neuheisel, just haven't had the talent to pull that off. Along those same lines, the Pistol will employ a zone-blocking scheme, which is more suited for an OL that might not be able to beat their man one-on-one at the point of attack. It's especially better designed for an experienced OL like UCLA's, being able to leverage its knowledge and experience over pure talent.

If the Pistol is successful at UCLA, Neuheisel and Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow will be hailed as geniuses (Well, for Chow, again). It will be looked upon as a gutsy move, especially for two offensive guys who could very well have been set in their old ways of doing things.

Even if the Pistol isn't greatly successful, in my opinion it was perhaps the best tactical idea by a UCLA football coach in a couple of decades. All of the signs of UCLA's offense – its experience, talent level, etc. – were screaming for a move like this, and it's highly admirable that Neuheisel and Chow chose to do it.

But we believe the Pistol will be successful.

While UCLA might be depleted talent-wise on the offensive line, it has its best collection of skill position talent that it's had in recent memory. The receivers group has everything you could want – size, speed and playmaking ability. The returning running backs are one year older and look quite a bit better, and that position has had an injection of freshmen talent. And, as we said, if Prince can stay healthy, we'll go out on another limb and predict he'll have the best season by a UCLA quarterback in many years.

It's funny, though, because most prognosticators are towing the common line that UCLA's offense probably won't be very good and UCLA's defense will, again, be good.

We're going contrary a bit on that commonly held assertion. We think UCLA's offense is going to be better than expected and UCLA's defense will be, probably, a bit worse.

As we've maintained for many years, college football, more than just about any sport, is so much about experience. Of course, talent plays a major part, but there are so many instances in college football where experience trumps talent.

So, even though UCLA's defense has a good collection of talent, it is vastly lacking in experience. With the loss of Jones, for the Kansas State game UCLA will be fielding six new starters among the front seven. There are some guys among those six that have a good amount of experience – like DT David Carter and MLB Steve Sloan – but, really, overall not much.

Then, throw in the fact that UCLA will essentially be breaking in two very inexperienced cornerbacks, and you have a quite inexperienced defense.

It's funny, really, how the loss of one player like Jones can kind of tip the perception that way. With him UCLA doesn't seem that vastly inexperienced; without him, they sort of do.

As we said, though, UCLA's defense is a talented crew, with perhaps the most overall talent than any UCLA defense in quite a while. So, we could easily see this defense being quite a bit better by the end of the season (barring injury) when it has that much more experience. But there could very well be some growing pains during the first half of the season.

There will be a great responsibility placed on the shoulders of two guys – Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore – to show leadership and carry the young defense through those growing pains.

What's interesting, though, is that UCLA's defense might be relatively prepared to face some injuries, with some considerable depth at most of its positions.

Perhaps the biggest question will be: Where is UCLA going to get a pass rush from? There are no proven pass rushers on the team (or more accurately, players who have actually done it in a game).

What's also interesting is that we've heard Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough intends to throw in a few more wrinkles this season. Last year was his first as a defensive coordinator and, even though he had a solid year, this season he intends to elaborate on that. And we've heard it has to do primarily with putting pressure on the opposing quarterback. So, look for some alignments intended to put speed on the field, and exploit the talent of Ayers.

So, overall, as a program, UCLA is clearly improved from when Neuheisel took over two years ago. There is considerably more talent, more depth and it's better coached.

But, as these things go, because of certain circumstances – and the luck of the schedule – that significant improvement might not be reflected in UCLA's record this season.

It just so happens that UCLA will face probably its toughest schedule under Neuheisel yet in 2010. These are things you just can't plan; ten years ago when UCLA officials were making out the schedule, they couldn't predict that this would be such a tough one, in the third year of a coach when it's critical he show results on the field.

In looking at the schedule, to the casual fan, the third game of the season against Houston wouldn't seem to be so critical, but when you analyze the schedule it really is. That game, at home on September 18th, could be huge in determining whether UCLA's season is considered a successful one.

What's really crazy is that, looking at every game on the schedule – expect for maybe Texas – we could easily see UCLA win every one, or lose every one.

UCLA starts off September 4th against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas. As UCLA's injuries have stacked up, oddsmakers have nudged the line toward KSU, but we think UCLA will have too much talent, and KSU will be hurt by not having seen the Pistol before.

The next week UCLA faces Stanford at home, which should be a great game between two similar programs, at roughly the same stage in their development. It's definitely a toss-up game at this point, without having the benefit of seeing each team in their first game the previous week. For homerism sake, we'll say UCLA has the advantage of the home field and that Stanford's defense shouldn't be very good.

We'll skip the Houston game for now.

We won't even analyze it, but we'll say that UCLA will lose in Austin against Texas.

Give the Bruins a win against Washington State at home.

The next four games on UCLA's schedule could determine the direction of the season – at Cal, at Oregon and home against Arizona and Oregon State. It's against three of the teams that should be among the best in the conference this season – Oregon, Arizona and Oregon State – and one that UCLA notoriously struggles against on the road in Cal. It's easy to give UCLA a loss on the road against Oregon, and then we'll say that UCLA is very competitive in the other three games but goes 1-2.

At Washington on a Thursday, November 13th, should be another key game. The Huskies should be improved and while it's always tough in Husky Stadium, the Bruins have generally performed well there. We'll say UCLA has the Pistol firing by then and the defense has gained some experience, and gets a big win on the road.

We'll then call a win on the road against Arizona State.

By the time UCLA plays USC in the Rose Bowl December 4th it could very well seem like a different college football universe. There is so much that has to pass under the bridge by then, in terms of UCLA's team and, clearly, USC's squad. We'll make the homer call and predict USC, in its initial probation season, will have collapsed somewhat by then and UCLA will be striding.

So, that Houston game might be the difference between a perceived mediocre seven-win regular season, one in which casual fans and pundits conclude that UCLA didn't make any progress, and an 8-win regular season that most onlookers hail as another step forward for Neuheisel. Since we have the homer thing going in this preview, let's say the Bruins beat a good Houston team in the Rose Bowl September 18th. If not, we'll say UCLA goes 2-1 against Cal, Arizona and Oregon State.

That would give UCLA an 8-4 regular season record and a chance at a decent bowl game.

That kind of season would be enough for Neuheisel to sell progress to recruits, and the recruiting flood gates would open just a bit more.

Again, though, we have to admit to being a bit of a homer in this season's preview. Heck, every year we're so objective that we thought this season, the one that is probably the most difficult to predict given so many unknowns with UCLA and the wide open race in the Pac-10, we'd go the homer route.

If UCLA had Jones and Maiava, we probably wouldn't even qualify this by calling it a homer version. If UCLA had Su'a-Filo, we'd probably be calling 9 wins.

Again, this is a season where it's pretty easy to see UCLA (in other than the Texas game) winning every game or losing every game. So, it's a season in which a prediction is going to be incredibly difficult and purely for entertainment value.

But we do believe that there is a very good chance that, with Neuheisel having built up the talent level in his first three recruiting classes, this could be a break-through season, one in which we all finally conclude that UCLA actually has an offense.

Hallelujah.


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