Reason for hope and caution at UCLA

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
6:57
PM PT
There is plenty of excitement surrounding the UCLA football program after its 36-30 victory over Nebraska Saturday earned the Bruins a spot in the AP college football poll for the first time since 2008.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Franklin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireUCLA's Johnathan Franklin leads the nation in rushing with 431 yards and has been honored as the Pac-12's offensive player twice in as many weeks.
While there are plenty of good reasons to believe the Bruins have, indeed, turned a corner and are headed for a successful season, there also is room for skepticism about the early triumphs of the team.

So, as the No. 22 Bruins prepare to take on Houston Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, we present the top five reasons to believe UCLA is on its way back, and five more reasons to be wary.



Five reasons to believe

1. Jim Mora: Mora is all business with this team and has instilled a sense of belief that the team seemed to be lacking in the past. He has the players trusting one another, as well as the coaching staff. He's running a very tight ship this season, holding players accountable for every detail, and will accept nothing less than 100 percent effort. The players respect him and have bought in, which means the Bruins should be competitive in every game.

2. The offense: Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has brought in a spread formation that is able to utilize the speed and athleticism that litters UCLA's roster. The Bruins are showing explosiveness and big-play ability and rank No. 3 in the nation in total offense and No. 18 in scoring, with running back Johnathan Franklin out in front with a nation-leading 431 yards rushing. It's the type of offense that makes you believe UCLA is capable of staying close in any game and coming back from a deficit no matter what is happening with UCLA's defense. That has not been the case the past several years.

3. Brett Hundley: Success in football almost always starts with the quarterback and Hundley has thus far proved up to the challenge of leading the team. He's shown good decision-making and accuracy in completing 42 of 61 passes (68.9 percent) for 507 yards and six touchdowns, with only one interception. He's also a threat with his legs and has 121 yards rushing in 19 carries. He's only a freshman, so he's only getting better and that means the Bruins will be able to build around him for the next couple of years.

4. The schedule: In beating Nebraska, the Bruins have just cleared what is perceived to be their biggest hurdle of the early season. Next up are home games against Houston and Oregon State followed by a trip to Colorado. Sure, the Beavers appear to be a bigger challenge than previously anticipated. And, later, Arizona and Arizona State could be tougher tests. But at this point, it's conceivable UCLA could be 10-0 heading into its Nov. 17 game against USC.

5. The staff: Mora inherited some very good talent, but he also surrounded himself with a staff that knows the recruiting scene and can land top-level players. By bringing in recruiting aces such as Adrian Klemm and Demetrice Martin, to go along with Angus McClure, Mora has surrounded himself with some of the most tireless recruiters in the business. UCLA landed the No. 19 class in the nation this year despite having only two and a half months to recruit after the coaching pieces were in place. So, with the coaches given full years to work their magic, there is every reason to believe UCLA can keep landing top-notch classes.

Five reasons to be wary

1. We've seen this act before: In 2007, UCLA started 2-0 and rose to No. 11 in the country only to lose 44-6 at Utah and drop from the rankings before finishing 6-7. In 2008, the Bruins defeated Tennessee in Rick Neuheisel's UCLA coaching debut; many said then the Bruins had turned a corner. They lost 59-0 next time out and finished 4-8. Neuheisel was fired after the 2011 season with a 21-29 record. The Bruins need to show they can not only sustain the success, but keep getting better.

2. The opponents: The win over Nebraska means nothing if the Cornhuskers turn out to be an average team. Some of UCLA's most high-profile victories over the past few years have turned out to be mirages. The Bruins defeated No. 20 Arizona State last year and the Sun Devils ended up 6-7. A 2010 victory at No. 7 Texas seemed impressive until the Longhorns ended up 5-7. The 2008 Tennessee squad Neuheisel’s team defeated in his debut was ranked No. 18 at the time but ended the season 5-7. Rice isn't exactly a national powerhouse and the jury is still out on Nebraska. It could end up that the Bruins have started 2-0 against two bad teams.

3. The defense: As impressive as UCLA has been so far on offense, the defense has left something to be desired. UCLA has given up 24 points in the first half of each of its games and currently ranks No. 100 in the nation in rushing defense, giving up an average of 217 yards per game on the ground. The good news is that the coaches have made good halftime adjustments and have been able to shut teams down in the second half of both games. But the offense might not always be able to keep pace, which means a slow start defensively could prove costly.

4. Depth: The Bruins have been able to escape major injury woes the first two weeks, but they are a twisted ankle or a sprained knee away from getting awfully thin at some positions. The offensive line, which already has three freshmen starters, would have to do some midseason juggling if one of the starters were to go down. Middle linebacker is especially worrisome, as Damien Holmes already is starting there after having never played there before this season. Eric Kendricks is the other starter and is solid. But there is nobody with experience behind Kendricks or Holmes. The defensive backfield also would have to rely on inexperienced players should an injury hit.

5. The penalties: UCLA currently leads the nation in yards penalized with 233, and the Bruins are tied for eighth in number of penalties with 19. Those types of numbers are not exactly a recipe for success. They haven't hurt yet, but there were a few against Nebraska that could have cost UCLA the game. Mora said he intends to get the penalties cleaned up and has confidence the players will respond. They had better, because you can't keep giving teams 100 free yards a game and expect sustained success.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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