UCLA: UCLA Bruins

UCLA's eyeblack game is unrivaled

November, 22, 2014
11/22/14
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UCLA EyeblackESPN
Punters have it rough.

They specialize in surrendering. They're trotted out as a physical embodiment of a failed drive with only one job: concede the ball as gracefully as possible. No fan wants to punt.

So when any component of a punter's job goes awry -- as it did when UCLA's Matt Mengel muffed a long snap against USC on Saturday -- it draws heaps of negative attention.

But when the cameras sought out Mengel on the sidelines for a reaction shot, the punter drew much more attention for something else entirely: his eyeblack. And Mengel wasn't the only one. Defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes eschewed subtlety completely. It looks like the tube ran out halfway across his face.



The bizarre William Wallace look is part of an off-and-on Bruins tradition that Jim Mora began during his first year as the team's head coach in 2012. Before a pivotal matchup with No. 24 Arizona, Mora ostensibly asked his assistants to apply the eyeblack as war paint. The Bruins then dismantled the Wildcats 66-10.

After the game, Mora was asked about the new look and was playfully evasive.

"You know, the lights," he told reporters. "The guys just wear eye black. I don't know."

We don't either.

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
9/28/14
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Well, that was interesting.

Remember how we talked about Utah-Washington State being a swing game? If the Cougars can somehow rally to find four more wins and the Utes can't find three, we're going to look back at the Cougs' 28-27 come-from-behind win as a tipping point.

The same could be said for Cal, which pulled off a double-overtime win against a feisty Colorado team to pick up win No. 3.

Let's begin with the Utes, who once again started hot in nonconference play, only to see things fall apart once league competition started. Can't blame this one on injured quarterbacks, because Utah had two opportunities in the fourth quarter with its starter to make something happen. The Pac-12 blog still thinks there are three wins out there for Utah. Of its eight remaining games, three of them are against unranked teams. The rub is that all three are on the road.

Cal also has five ranked teams still on the schedule, and the three remaining against unranked teams -- Washington State, Washington and Oregon State -- are critical. Two of the three are on the road. We're adding Cal to the projections this week. We like its moxie.

As for the Beavers, boy, that offense didn't look good. Given OSU's three unimpressive wins and one very bad loss, we're going to drop them from the projections for now, but as always reserve the right to change our minds.

We're down to just three undefeated teams left: Oregon, Arizona and UCLA. And 10 teams are either halfway to a bowl game or beyond.

Here are the latest projections. As always, salt heavily.

College Football Playoff: Oregon
Fiesta Bowl: UCLA
Valero Alamo Bowl: Stanford
National University Holiday Bowl: USC
San Francisco Bowl: Arizona
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Washington
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Arizona State
Cactus Bowl: Utah
Heart of Dallas Bowl*: California

* at large

UCLA makes a statement against ASU

September, 26, 2014
9/26/14
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- UCLA's visit to Arizona State was popularly billed as a measuring stick game. It was a measuring stick for the Pac-12's South Division between the two teams that won it the past three seasons. It was a measuring stick for two teams that entered the game with as many questions as answers despite being unbeaten.

Apologies in advance for the unsubtle image, but UCLA took those measuring sticks and beat Arizona State over the head with them. The 15th-ranked Sun Devils jumped to an early lead but the No. 11 Bruins dominated for three quarters in a 62-27 victory.

Questions? The first one for UCLA was whether quarterback Brett Hundley would be healthy enough to play after getting knocked out of the win over Texas on Sept. 13 with a hyperextended elbow. Oh, he looked pretty healthy. He passed for 355 yards, completing 18 of 23 throws, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 72 yards and was sacked just once -- the Sun Devils sacked him nine times last year.

All that work for Hundley amounted to a 97.7 QBR rating, per ESPN Stats & Information, which is pretty close to a perfect 100.

"He's a freak of nature," said receiver Jordan Payton, who hauled in an 80-yard TD from Hundley on the first play of the third quarter; the score came during a monstrous 42-3 run from the Bruins after they fell behind 17-6 early in the second quarter.

That run required less than 20 minutes of game time and was highlighted by big plays. Other than Payton's catch and scoot, there was an 80-yard TD pass to Eldridge Massington that was brought on by comedically poor tackling, a 95-yard interception return from Ishmael Adams that was a back-breaker for the Sun Devils just before halftime, and a 100-yard kickoff return from Adams midway through the third quarter that sent Sun Devils fans stomping out of their stadium.

The Bruins needed less than nine minutes to score 28 of those points. They won by 35 points despite running practically half as many plays as the Sun Devils -- 58 to 105 -- and converting half as many first downs (19 to 38).

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsThe Bruins had plenty to celebrate on Thursday night.
"I think we showed we had some grit to us," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Since Hundley went down versus Texas, Mora played coy with the media about his QB's status. While Hundley sported a sleeve and a brace on his left, non-throwing elbow, he seemed none the worse for wear, taking a number of hits and even hurdling flailing defenders. The strong implication after the game was no one in the Bruins locker room had believed Hundley would again give way to backup Jerry Neuheisel, particularly considering he was playing in his hometown.

Mora was asked after the game at what point did he know Hundley would play.

"I don't know how to answer that," he quipped. "I can answer it truthfully or I can lie."

The truth is this performance made a statement for the Bruins, a team which had yet to live up to its preseason hype as a national title contender. The truth also is this performance was far from perfect. While UCLA dominated, its defense also yielded 626 yards.

"I'm not happy with it and I don't think they are happy with it," Mora said. "We have to play better."

On the other hand, Arizona State scored only 10 points after the 14:24 mark of the second quarter and averaged just 6.0 yards per play. Eight Pac-12 teams have averaged more than that per play this year, and the Sun Devils entered the game averaging 7.6 yards per play.

UCLA averaged 10 yards per play on offense, something that didn't make Arizona State coach Todd Graham very happy.

"Tackling was atrocious. Very, very poor tackling," Graham said. "Fundamentally we looked bad and looked inexperienced. I am lost for words. I think we got worn down. I do not think our conditioning was very good."

Unlike UCLA, Arizona State was forced to use backup QB Mike Bercovici because of a foot injury to starter Taylor Kelly. Bercovici made plenty of plays, completing 42 of 68 throws for 488 yards and three TDs, but he also hurled two interceptions and fumbled.

"I think Mike did some great things but you cannot make turnovers," Graham said. "That was the story of the night. He did make some great plays and overcame adversity. For his first time starting, he really showed some promise."

Hundley spent most of his postgame session with reporters celebrating his offensive line and receivers and downplaying his elbow injury. When asked how close the Bruins are to reaching their potential he said, "Very close."

"We just keep getting better," he said. "The sky is the limit."

The "sky" was the lofty measure some ascribed to the Bruins in the preseason. After three unimpressive wins, however, more than a few pundits started throwing this team back to earth.

It's possible UCLA now will require a new measure after pounding the Sun Devils in their own house.


Oregon remains at No. 2; USC drops

September, 14, 2014
9/14/14
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Oregon strengthened its hold on the No. 2 spot in the fourth AP poll of the season, but the Pac-12 is without two top-10 teams for the first time this season.

The Ducks picked up an additional first-place vote and are six points closer to top-ranked Florida State (42 behind) compared to last week.

USC took the biggest fall, dropping eight spots to No. 17 following its 37-31 loss to Boston College and is now one spot behind Stanford, which the Trojans beat on the road last week.

UCLA remains at No. 12 after squeaking out a win against reeling Texas, but was jumped by both Ole Miss and Michigan State. Through three games, UCLA remains undefeated, but none of its wins have done much to impress voters.

Next up for the Bruins is No. 15 Arizona State in Tempe on Sept. 25. The Sun Devils jumped Stanford this week -- largely because USC's loss to Boston College devalued the Cardinal -- after opening conference play with a 38-24 win against Colorado.

Washington (14) and Arizona (3) also received votes.

Neuheisel, Bruins find a way to slip Texas

September, 14, 2014
9/14/14
2:31
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video

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Without quarterback Brett Hundley, UCLA could not win. It didn't matter that Texas was beaten up and beaten down. It didn't matter that Hundley was just one guy. He was The Guy, the face of the Bruins, the biggest reason some touted them in the preseason as national title contenders. Moreover, to put it gently, the depth chart behind him was unpromising.

Backup Jerry Neuheisel? Son of Rick Neuheisel, the guy who was fired before Jim Mora built the Bruins into contenders? The guy who some suspected got a scholarship only because his dad was the head coach? No way.

So when Hundley was surrounded by trainers after going down with an apparent elbow injury in the first quarter against the Longhorns, you could sense impending doom. You could sense the Bruins, who had struggled to beat Virginia and Memphis with Hundley, joining teams such as Ohio State, Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia and Michigan State on the slag heap of exposed contenders.

[+] EnlargeJerry Neuheisel
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsBackup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel got a hero's exit after leading No. 12 UCLA to a come-from-behind 20-17 victory over Texas.
Texas thought the same thing.

"[Neuheisel and Hundley] are two different quarterbacks," Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs said. "One guy is up for the Heisman and the other guy is someone we've never heard of."

Yet there was Neuheisel eyeballing Diggs' cornerbacking counterpart, Duke Thomas, in man coverage against receiver Jordan Payton with three minutes left in the game, sensing his moment had arrived.

"As soon as I saw [Thomas'] eyes, I thought, 'Oh, my God, this might just work,'" Neuheisel said.

The Bruins were down four on Texas' 33-yard line and pretty much hadn't allowed Neuhiesel to throw downfield since he came off the bench, but offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone expected man coverage and decided Payton might get free with a double move.

In fact, Thomas appeared to bite on Neuheisel's pump fake, and the ball arrived soft and sweet into Payton's hands. Touchdown. After the defense forced a four-and-done, the Bruins hoisted Neuheisel onto their shoulders. They'd won 20-17 without Hundley to improve to 3-0.

"I felt like it was going to be a little bit of a defining moment for us," UCLA coach Jim Mora said of when Hundley went down.

While it might seem to some like an ugly 3-0 for the nation's No. 12 team, it was a dream come true for Neuheisel. Literally. He told his teammates that at halftime. He grew up dreaming of following in his dad's footsteps as the UCLA quarterback, imagining throwing winning touchdowns in his backyard. The general expectation from fans and media, however, was the redshirt sophomore would remain on the bench behind Hundley, holding for field goals and then backing up whoever won the job next year when Hundley was off to the NFL.

Yet a point of emphasis from Mora and the Bruins after their victory was never doubting Neuheisel.

"We all expected it," Payton said.

Said Mora, "His team fricken' loves him. There was never any doubt."

Well, there was and is some doubt. What's next, for one, is a big issue. Hundley's status is questionable, to say the least. Mora would only say Hundley would be evaluated by UCLA team doctors back in Los Angeles. While beating a struggling Texas team with a backup QB is one thing, the Bruins visit Arizona State on Sept. 25 after a bye week. That's an entirely different deal, a critical South Division showdown. Of course, in an unfortunate twist of fate, both teams could be without their starting quarterbacks, as Taylor Kelly suffered a foot injury against Colorado on Saturday.

Neuheisel, who completed 23 of 30 passes for 178 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, could square off with Sun Devils backup Mike Bercovici in a game with major Pac-12, and even national, implications. The Bruins, however, were still operating inside the 24-hour rule Saturday, which means their primary concern is enjoying the present, not refocusing on the next foe.

Neuheisel is his father's son. He looks and sounds like Rick Neuheisel, and he's quick with a quip like his dad. When he walked into the postgame interview room, he noted, "Holders don't get this kind of publicity." After the elder Neuheisel led the Bruins to an upset of Illinois in the 1984 Rose Bowl, he cracked wise during a postgame interview about the Fighting Illini band blasting music behind him.

"I just talked to my dad," Jerry Neuheisel said. "He said, 'You did it. It's kind of a Neuheisel thing.'"

On a day when UCLA's crosstown rival, USC, wilted at Boston College, the Bruins found a way to dig deep, overcome adversity and win. UCLA might not be a beautiful 3-0, but it is 3-0 and that's what matters.

"They never flinched," Mora said. "They never blinked. That's kind of what we are trying to become. And we're getting closer and closer every day."

Watch: Rick Neuheisel basks in son's win

September, 14, 2014
9/14/14
12:24
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Sometimes a picture says it all. In this case: The pride of a beaming father.

Rick Neuheisel, fired from UCLA in 2011 after four seasons in charge of the Bruins, nevertheless still has a reason to root for his old school. Rick's son, Jerry, was forced into action at quarterback Saturday night against Texas after an early injury to star Brett Hundley.

Neuheisel, who came in with 11 career passes, finished 23-of-30 with no interceptions, 178 yards and two touchdowns, including the 33-yard game winner with three minutes left in the UCLA's 20-17 victory.

You can imagine the pride felt by his pops, who was glued to the TV in the Pac-12 Network offices in California as his son was lifted up by his teammates in celebration 1,700 miles away in Texas.

UPDATE: And now there's video, courtesy of the Pac-12 Network. Check out Rick as he nervously watches the final minutes:

We'll leave you with this. A father. A son. And about as UCLA as it gets.

Rick Neuheisel, Jerry NeuheiselAP Photo, USA TODAY SportsRick Neuheisel led UCLA to a 1984 Rose Bowl win. His son, Jerry, was carried off the field after leading the Bruins to a win over Texas.


Grumpy UCLA eyeballs Texas, doubters

September, 11, 2014
9/11/14
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UCLA coach Jim Mora began his weekly spot on the Pac-12 coaches teleconference with a grumble and two harrumphs. Some might say there also was a dismissive snap or two. This was Grumpy Jim.

He was asked about his Bruins appearing on the Pac-12 Network series, "The Drive."

“I’ve never said the words, ‘The Drive,’ to our team," he said. "I’ve never heard our players talk about it. They’ve never asked me a question about it. It’s a complete nonentity to us.”

He was asked about his team not playing up to expectations.

"How do you know we haven't played up to our own expectations?" Mora said, adding that he's not going to "talk about what he talks to the team about."

He was asked about Texas' pursuit of him last year before he re-upped with UCLA and the Longhorns hired Charlie Strong.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images"It's up to us to prove that we are a competitive, good football team to be reckoned with," Jim Mora said. "In the first two weeks, we haven't necessarily done that."
"You'll have to ask them if they considered me," he said. "I'm just excited to the coach at UCLA."

That's all he would say, even though a day later a story would appear on ESPN.com in which he provides great detail about the interview with Texas representatives.

A grumpy football coach isn't unusual, just as a coach who doesn't want to talk about his team's struggles or his flirtation with an other job isn't either. Yet after these tense initial three minutes, Mora transformed. He loosened up and became pleasant and expansive. His 10 minutes of allotted time stretched to 15. When he fielded a last question about changing a program's culture, you got the distinct feeling he was smiling while answering.

Call the analogy facile, but Mora showed that a quick turnaround is possible, and that's what he's hoping he gets from his team as it prepares to play Texas on Saturday in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. That transformation with reporters included significantly more insight about his and his team's thinking after some folks turned up their noses following unimpressive UCLA wins over Virginia and Memphis.

“We enjoy the role of underdog," he said. "We feel like we’re kind of back to where we want to be, which is people are doubting us. There’s a reason for that and we’re OK with that. It’s up to us to prove that we are a competitive, good football team to be reckoned with. In the first two weeks, we haven’t necessarily done that.”

Then Insightful Jim apologized for his insightful answer, "I hope you can get something out of that.”

We can. Mora is even more aware than critical reporters that the Bruins first two games haven't yet matched reasonable expectations for his depth chart. The good news is his team is 2-0. It's entirely valid to question, however, whether his team will prove to be the national title contender it was projected to be in the preseason. The early returns suggest not.

Mora went even further with his beat reporters Tuesday, admitting his players were "tight" the first two weeks. "I think we let the outside expectations become a little bit of a burden to us," he said.

In Game 1, the offensive line looked over-burdened by Virginia, yielding five sacks and producing little running room. In Game 2, that line surrendered four sacks, but the running game was better and the Bruins scored 42 points and gained 540 yards. Yet the defense yielded 35 points and 469 yards.

While it would be easy to say that if you combine the defense from Game 1 and the offense from Game 2, UCLA would be fine, the real issue is improvement on the offensive line, the team's most questionable area. This is not a new thing.

UCLA has surrendered 97 sacks since the beginning of the 2012 season, tied for second-most in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It's particularly concerning that this isn't about blitzes. QB Brett Hundley has been sacked 51 times in his career on plays in which opponents have sent four or fewer pass-rushers, the most for any Power 5 quarterback in the last three seasons. Bruins QBs have been pressured (hurried or knocked down) on a Pac-12-high 24 percent of their dropbacks the last two seasons, including 24 percent this season.

And it's not just about pass blocking. UCLA is averaging 71.0 yards before contact per game this season, second-worst in the Pac-12 behind Washington State. The Bruins produced 130 plays the last two seasons that lost yards, third-most in the FBS.

Despite these worrisome numbers, Hundley and the Bruins have managed to score a lot of points, as they've averaged 36.7 points per game the past two seasons. But unreliability up front is where UCLA's 2014 great expectations might get the Miss Havisham treatment.

As for Mora and the Bruins, who have tumbled from No. 7 to No. 12 in the AP poll, the reality is being grumpy at 2-0 isn't such a bad thing. He noted that the worst thing that can happen to a team is its locker room becoming permeated with self-satisfaction.

So while a few gritty harrumphs for Texas on Saturday and Arizona State on Sept. 25 might quell the doubters, that grumpiness shouldn't ever completely go away.

Week 1 rivalries? Coaches say no thanks

August, 29, 2014
8/29/14
3:00
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(Pause for laughter)

(Pause again, for laughter)

(Pause, again, still for more laughter)

UCLA head coach Jim Mora had just been asked a purely-for-fun, purely-hypothetical question: What if UCLA and USC had to play in Week 1?

“I don’t think it would be a good deal,” Mora said. “You want the drama to build. I don’t know what it would be like. I never thought of that. [Pause for laughter, again]. It would make for an interesting off season. You’d have a whole lot of time to talk about it rather than just a week. Heck, I don’t know.”

[+] EnlargeMike MacIntyre
AP Photo/David Zalubowski Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre relishes the opportunity to play a rivalry game in Week 1. But most Pac-12 coaches would rather wait until the end of the season.
 The roots of this comical concept stem from the fact that while most of the Pac-12 will be dining on desserts in Week 1, the Colorado Buffaloes have to play a rivalry game with Colorado State right out of the chute.

And make no mistake -- this is a rivalry game. This will be the 86th game in the series (the Buffs lead 62-21-2), which has been played off and on since 1893 and annually since 1995 (the longest gap was between ’58 to ’83).

It doesn’t matter that Colorado is in the Pac-12 and Colorado State is in the Mountain West. This game is as heated as it gets.

“We think of this as a traditional rivalry, no doubt about it,” said Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre. “You hear about it every day. Everybody is up and down Interstate 25, and CU fans and CSU fans run into each other. The kids know each other. The coaches know each other because we speak at different clinics and run into each other all of the time.”

Colorado State got win No. 1 for coach Jim McElwain in 2012 with a 22-17 victory. A year later, the MacIntyre era kicked off with a 41-27 victory.

“The pros of it are it’s a big, heightened game,” MacIntyre said. “It keeps your kids on their toes. They hear about it all the time. It makes it a little more special. All opening games are special. But this puts an extra flavor to it, so to speak.”

That got the Pac-12 blog to thinking … simply for extra flavor … what if every rivalry game in the league was played in Week 1. What would the storylines be?

  • Territorial Cup: New Arizona QB faces new ASU D as RichRod looks for first win in rivalry.
  • The Big Game: Bear Raid looks to get off the mat against two-time conference champs.
  • The Civil War: Potential first-round picks Marcus Mariota and Sean Mannion duel in opener.
  • UCLA-USC: Oh jeez … can you imagine USC and UCLA squaring off Saturday after the week the Trojans have had? This one writes itself.
  • The Apple Cup: Chris Petersen’s Washington debut against the Cougs.

Look, we know this isn’t ever going to happen. But it’s fun to think about the possibilities. Right?

“Oh, we wouldn’t like that. I wouldn’t like that at all,” said Arizona State coach Todd Graham, [OK, guess not]. “I’m a fan. I don’t want to start the season off with a rivalry game. We love that being at the end of the season for our fans.”

The consensus was that if the rivalry game was in Week 1, so be it, the coaches would prepare per usual. But it just wouldn’t feel the same.

“One year we played Hawaii after [we played Oregon] at the end of the year and that felt funny,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “It would definitely make for an interesting start to the season.”

Because the CSU-CU game is an out-of-conference showdown, the thought is that this game is best played before league play cranks up. And that makes sense.

“Late in the conference, you’re worried about conference games and getting to the conference championship game,” MacIntyre said.” I think playing it early in the year is a good thing for both of us.”

So, no. Pac-12 rivalries should not be played in Week 1. But the tradition works for the Colorado folks so don’t mess with it. It will make for a fun debut Friday night and add some sizzle to a Week 1 slate that doesn’t have a ton of gusto.

And we can all get on board with Graham: “That game is the game for us. You can win 11 games and lose that one and have an unsuccessful season. You could lose 11 and win that one and have a successful season. That’s how big that game is for us. I kind of like it where it’s at.”

Pac-12 bowl projections: Preseason

August, 28, 2014
8/28/14
5:00
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The college football postseason will be very different this season, with the end of the BCS and the beginning of the four-team College Football Playoff. But there's more!

The CFP selection committee also will pick teams for the Fiesta, Orange and Cotton bowls. Those are the major bowls not hosting this season's CFP semifinal games. The selections will be based on ... get ready to be shocked ... merit. Well, there are some other considerations, but there won't be any more ridiculous decisions made purely on potential ticket sales. (The national semifinals, by the way, are to be played out at the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 1, 2015, with the winners to vie for the national championship on Jan. 12, 2015, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.)

There also is expected to be more flexibility in the bowl arrangements, with bowls working with conferences to put together the best matchups possible and avoid repeat visits. That seems to be another good thing, though we await its execution.

In any event, here are your Pac-12 bowl projections, made with all the certainty one can muster in advance of the season itself.

College Football Playoff: Oregon
Fiesta Bowl: UCLA
Valero Alamo Bowl: Stanford (vs. Big 12)
National University Holiday Bowl: USC (vs. Big Ten)
San Francisco Bowl: Washington (vs. Big Ten)
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Arizona State (vs. ACC)
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Washington State (vs. Mountain West)
Cactus Bowl: Oregon State (vs. Big 12)
Heart of Dallas Bowl*: Arizona

* at large

Mora confident Bruins will handle hype

August, 27, 2014
8/27/14
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The 2014 preseason top 10 is laden with the usual suspects: Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Auburn, Michigan State, South Carolina and Baylor. While a couple of those teams aren't certifiable perennial powers, they all finished the 2013 season ranked among the top 13.

There is, however, a lone outlier: UCLA. It's ranked seventh in both the AP and coaches' polls, up nine spots from its final No. 16 ranking in 2013.

Lone outlier? That was UCLA's first end-of-season ranking since 2005, when it finished 16th in the AP poll and 13th with the coaches.

Lone outlier? The Bruins haven't been ranked in the preseason top 10 since 1998.

No team in the country is generating more buzz as a nouveau contender than UCLA. ESPN "College GameDay" pundits Lee Corso and Desmond Howard both predicted the Bruins would win the national championship in the first year of the College Football Playoff. Nine of 23 ESPN college football pundits picked the Bruins to at least make the playoff semifinals. Twelve picked them to win the Pac-12.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Icon SMI"I think we are a mature team, a focused team," coach Jim Mora said. "When you are a mature team and a focused team that practices hard, you get confidence from that."
Of course, college football history is full of teams that went rear end over tea kettle after being handed high preseason rankings. Florida was ranked 10th last year in the preseason and finished 4-8. USC was No. 1 in 2012 and finished 7-6. Sports Illustrated ranked Oregon State its 2001 preseason No. 1 but the Beavers tumbled to 5-6. Arizona started at No. 4 in 1999 but floundered to 6-6.

Bottom line: If you take a high preseason ranking and $1 to the bank for change, you'll still only get four quarters for your trouble.

Make no mistake, though, there's a good reason for these lofty estimations. A perusal of the Bruins' depth chart -- even if third-year coach Jim Mora insists he doesn't have one -- reveals a team with a lot of talent and few questions. It's not just Brett Hundley behind center. It's size, athleticism and experience just about everywhere. The Bruins are loaded with skill players and are physical at the line of scrimmage.

In fact, the most obvious preseason issue for UCLA isn't about personnel. It's about handling all the hype. While a high preseason ranking means Mora and his players have been doing something right, all the headlines, backslaps and gushing media accounts could become distractions. Players could become complacent, believing a high ranking means entitlement. As the klieg lights roll into Westwood, and the velvet ropes part at the hottest L.A. clubs, there's always a chance the team could lose its way.

No one is more aware of this than Mora. There's a sign posted in the locker room that Bruins players have alluded to throughout the offseason: "Don't listen to the noise." In other words, forget buzz. Remember the work."

"We focus on the day we are living in. We try to be great today and then we come back and try to be better tomorrow," Mora said. "If you don't concentrate and focus on the daily grind and being the best you can be that very day then you are going to lose track of who you are and where you are going."

While Mora is aware of the dangers of distraction, it's also pretty clear he's not obsessed with it like many coaches. While many elite programs shut down media access, UCLA is fairly open with reporters and has even allowed the Pac-12 Network to film a behind-the-scenes account of the Bruins' season, a weekly show called "The Drive," which focused on Arizona State and California last year.

Obviously, that accounted for decidedly mixed results on the field. The Sun Devils won the South Division, beating out UCLA, and Cal's season was a tale of woe.

"It won't be a distraction, not one single bit," Mora said.

Why does he believe that? Because of the culture that he believes has been established in his locker room. It's the foundation of his team's confidence, which comes from within, not without.

"It's probably maturity," he said. "I think we are a mature team, a focused team. When you are a mature team and a focused team that practices hard, you get confidence from that. I don't think you gain confidence from other people telling you you're good. Or other people putting expectations on you, labeling you as something. That confidence is internal. It comes from working hard every day."

Mora is a pretty bottom-line sort of guy. He knows that the hype -- and "The Drive" -- won't win the Bruins any games this year. Nor, for that matter, will it lose any. Whatever is going on around UCLA or the words used to describe the team, it's still all about talent, focus, preparation and executing on game day.

As in: The usual suspects.

Something to prove in the Pac-12

August, 26, 2014
8/26/14
5:00
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Enough chatter. Enough previews. Enough hype. It’s game week. Time to put up or shhhhhh.

Today we’re going to take a look at players/coaches/position groups with something to prove in 2014. These are in no particular order, but each is just as significant.

  1. Hot seat coaches: While Utah coach Kyle Whittingham's and Cal coach Sonny Dykes' seats aren’t exactly roasting, it’s not like they just took the ice bucket challenge, either. The Utes have missed the postseason for consecutive seasons, and the Bears have dropped 16 straight FBS teams (11 under Dykes’ watch). Unless either has a disastrous season, the Pac-12 blog sees them back in 2015. But results need to come sooner than later.
  2. [+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
    AP Photo/Don RyanThe preseason hype has been in full force for Pac-12 QBs like Oregon's Marcus Mariota. It's now time to deliver.
     Quarterbacks: The 10 returning starters have brought a crush of national attention to the Pac-12. Now it’s time for those guys to earn it. Some are calling this the most talented collection of quarterbacks in one league in the history of college football -- headlined by Heisman trophy candidates Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley. The expectations have never been higher for Pac-12 signal-callers.
  3. Stanford’s offensive line: Speaking of hype … a couple of years ago the Cardinal inked what some called the best offensive line recruiting class in the history of history. Now all five starters are from that class. Some already have significant experience. Others saw some work in Stanford’s “extra linemen” packages last season. This group has to live up to its billing for the Cardinal to do what they want to do on offense.
  4. Austin Hill: In 2012, he was a beast, catching 81 balls for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns. Then an ACL injury suffered in the spring of 2013 cost him all of last season. Now he headlines an extremely deep and talented wide-receiving corps for the Wildcats in a Rich Rodriguez system that favors pass-catchers. No doubt, Hill is looking to get that first catch, first hit and first touchdown out of the way. If redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon can produce solid quarterback play, Hill could be in for another outstanding season.
  5. USC freshmen: Damien Mama and Toa Lobendahn are slated at right and left guard, respectively, for the season opener against Fresno State. Ajene Harris is listed as a starting wide receiver. Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith are expected to contribute as receivers and on special teams. And with the loss of Josh Shaw, Jackson might see extended time at cornerback. Steve Sarkisian made a huge splash in his first preseason by landing a top-notch recruiting class. Now it’s time for these guys to go out and prove it.
  6. Mark Helfrich: Sometimes the burden of expectation can weigh heaviest of all. Helfirch got a taste of that last season when, despite going 11-2 and beating Texas in the Alamo Bowl, there were some who considered Oregon’s 2013 campaign an unsuccessful one. He lost to Stanford (Chip Kelly also did, twice, by the way), lost to Arizona and some off-field incidents (Colt Lyerla, Rose Bowl comments, snowball fight) became bigger talking points than what was happening on the field. On the field, in case you forgot, was a Heisman-favorite quarterback playing the second half of the season with a partially torn knee ligament. A Pac-12 championship would go a long way toward silencing his doubters.
  7. D.J. Foster: Working in tandem with Marion Grice last season, Foster rushed for 501 yards and six touchdowns to go with his 653 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He’s a versatile back that Mike Norvell loves to split out and use in the passing game. But with Grice gone, Foster now takes over as the primary back. They’ll still use him in the passing attack. He’s too talented for them not to. But he’ll get a lot more work as a runner beyond the 93 carries he had last fall.
  8. Myles Jack: The Pac-12 blog has a special column on Jack coming out later this week so we won’t spoil anything. All we’ll say for now is he’s getting a ton of national love. From All-America lists to Heisman chatter, Jack is the national darling of preseason college football. Thing is, he might just be worth all of the hype. His encore season will be telling.
  9. The new guys: That the Huskies are a preseason Top 25 team speaks to how highly the national media thinks of Chris Petersen -- especially after they lost their quarterback, running back and tight end. He has his work cut out for him in a brutal Pac-12 North. But the expectations aren’t as extreme as they are for the guy he replaced. Sarkisian and the Trojans are expected to compete for a South Division title, a conference crown and a spot in the College Football Playoff. Beating UCLA would be a good start.
  10. Cal’s defense: The Bears had a rough go of it last season. No doubt. As the injuries piled up, and younger players were forced into action. The end result was, well, Cal in 2013. With a new defensive coordinator in Art Kaufman and finally a little health, guys like Brennan Scarlett, Mustafa Jalil and Stefan McClure take center stage in what the Bears hope will be a defensive revival.

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
8/01/14
9:00
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Our list of the top 25 players in the Pac-12 concludes.

No. 5: Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly

2013 stats: Completed 62.4 percent of his throws for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, giving him an adjusted QBR of 74.2, which ranked 24th nationally. He also rushed 173 times for 608 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: There was some disagreement at the end of last season about who was the second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback. Kelly won the official Pac-12 vote with the coaches, and that means a lot. It also helps that he is the quarterback of the defending South Division champion. Further, you have to love his story. Nothing has been given to Kelly. In the spring of 2012, he was little more than an afterthought, ranking third in the Sun Devils' quarterback competition. You have to be mentally tough to emerge from that sort of deficit. He has earned his spot by fighting like crazy to win the job, to lead his team well and, finally, to become an A-list quarterback worthy of national attention. He has a chance to play his way into a solid spot in the NFL draft too. As for this season, Kelly has a lot coming back on offense and, because of the Sun Devils' questionable defense, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell figures to set him free as a third-year starter.

No. 4: Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

2013 stats: Ekpre-Olomu was second on the Ducks with 84 tackles. He had five tackles for a loss to go with three interceptions and nine passes defended. He also forced a fumble.

Why he's ranked here: Ekpre-Olomu might be the best cornerback in the nation. He earned All-American honors last season and is pretty much a unanimous 2014 preseason All-American. He is not expected to last too far into the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, and truth be told, it was a bit of a surprise he stuck around for another season because he likely would have been a first-round pick last spring. It will be interesting to see if he sees much action on his side of the field this season, considering he is the lone returning starter in the Ducks' secondary. His numbers might not wow you, but opposing coaches will start their Monday meetings by drawing a line down one third of the field and saying, "Ifo is here, so we're throwing over here."

No. 3: UCLA QB Brett Hundley

2013 stats: Hundley completed 67.2 percent of his throws for 3,071 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 748 yards and 11 scores.

Why he's ranked here: Kelly-Hundley, Hundley-Kelly -- based on last season, Kelly should nip his buddy from UCLA. But Hundley ends up at No. 3 because of projection. He is simply overbrimming with talent. He's big, strong, smart, charismatic, etc. Outside of Johnny Manziel, no one has more scramble yards in the past two seasons than Hundley (per ESPN Stats & Information). Though there are parts of his game that didn't completely arrive in 2013 -- still more feared as a runner than downfield passer and still takes too many sacks -- those were delays, not cancellations. Hundley also has a stacked supporting cast. The Bruins are the favorite in the Pac-12 South, a preseason top-10 team and a dark horse national title contender. If UCLA surges, Hundley almost certainly will become a top Heisman Trophy candidate.

No. 2: USC DT Leonard Williams

2013 stats: Williams was second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, tied with Devon Kennard for the team lead with 13.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.

Why he's ranked here: Williams, a 2013 first-team ESPN.com All-American, is the consensus pick as the nation's best returning defensive lineman. He could be the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, and he's almost certainly not going to last past the top 10 picks. Former USC coach Ed Orgeron called him the best defensive lineman he's ever coached, and Orgeron's defensive line résumé is deep. Williams has great length and athleticism and surprising power. He is the centerpiece of what might be the Pac-12's best defense. Last season, he was the lone sophomore semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, and he is likely to be a finalist for just about every award for which he is eligible.

No. 1: Marcus Mariota

2013 stats: Mariota completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 715 yards and nine touchdowns.

Why he's ranked here: Surprise! Bet you didn't see this coming, considering Mariota finished No. 1 on this list in 2012 and 2013. This was the easiest spot to fill on this list, perhaps the only easy spot by the way. Why? Mariota might be the best quarterback and player in the nation. In the 2014 Heisman Trophy race, he is option 1A besides Florida State's Jameis Winston, who won it last year but has significant character issues. Mariota opted to return and get his degree -- yes, he is taking a light class load this fall because he doesn't need any more credits -- and instantly made the Ducks (again) the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender. The biggest question of the 2013 season was what might have happened if Mariota didn't suffer a knee injury before playing at Stanford. Pre-injury, he had 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions; post-injury, 11 touchdowns and four picks. All nine of his rushing touchdowns came before he partially tore his MCL. Despite that injury, Mariota led an offense that averaged 45.5 points per game last season -- tops in the Pac-12 and fourth in the nation -- in a very good defensive conference. While his speed and production as a runner is impossible to ignore, what separates him is his passing ability. He was No. 1 in the Pac-12 in efficiency and No. 1 in the nation in ESPN’s adjusted QBR rating. He set an Oregon single-season record with 4,380 total yards. He also set a Pac-12 record by attempting 353 consecutive passes without an interception. Though character isn't much of a factor on this list -- the Pac-12 is fortunate that it didn't see much of that weigh down the offseason -- Mariota's is difficult to ignore. St. Marcus of Eugene seems likely to be in New York in December.

Preseason magazines on Pac-12

July, 1, 2014
7/01/14
5:30
PM PT
Preseason magazines don't always get it right, but they certainly whet our appetite for the college football season.

As for how they view the Pac-12's 2014 pecking order and national standing among the preseason Top 25s, there's been a high degree of consensus: Thus far, just about everyone has Oregon winning the North Division and UCLA winning the South Division.

Stassen.com is a great preseason reference source, both for this year and as a historical reference. It keeps track of what the preseason magazines prognosticate every year.

If you toss in Phil Steele, who concludes his countdown today, we have five major publications with their predictions: Lindy's, Athlon, The Sporting News and USA Today.

Each ranks defending national champion Florida State No. 1, other than The Sporting News, which ranks the Seminoles No. 3 and Oklahoma No. 1.

Oregon leads the Pac-12 in each poll save Phil Steele, who ranks UCLA No. 5 and Oregon No. 6. The Ducks ranking ranges from No. 2 (Sporting News) to No. 6 (Phil Steele, Athlon). UCLA is ranked as high as No. 5 (Phil Steele) and as low as 10th (USA Today).

As for the Pac-12 standings, all five publications predict Oregon wins the North and UCLA wins the South. All five have Stanford second in the North. Four of five have USC second in the South, with The Sporting News tapping Arizona State No. 2 and USC No. 3. All five have California last in the North and Colorado last in the South.

Is the Pac-12 really this predictable? You can be sure it won't be.

Preseason position reviews: Tight end

June, 30, 2014
6/30/14
9:00
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We're continuing our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this. We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

Tight end, typically a strength, is a position in transition in the conference. It feels a bit like we are grading on a curve here because there's a lot more "We'll sees" than A-list returning players, in some part because a handful of teams employ a big wide receiver instead of a true tight end.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon State: Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith are the best returning tight end tandem in the conference. Hamlett had 40 catches for 364 yards last season and Smith added 25 for 343 yards. Further, Kellen Clute hauled in 19 passes for 159 yards. Of course, the Beavers use both a tight end and an H-back, so they need numbers at the position. Those were reduced when fifth-year senior Tyler Perry, a solid run blocker, retired due to injuries, as did Hayden Craig, and incoming freshman Jake Knight opted out of football in favor of track. California transfer Jacob Wark, a part-time starter as a Bear, should work his way into the rotation, and incoming freshman Ryan Nall also might get a look.

Oregon: The Ducks seem certain to get good production at the position with some combination of Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis. Each has experience and has flashed potential, and the position should be more important now with questions at receiver due to Bralon Addison's knee injury. Brown started five games last year, Mundt had a 121-yard receiving game against Tennessee and Baylis started in the Civil War game against Oregon State.

GOOD SHAPE

USC: The Trojans lost Xavier Grimble early to the NFL draft, but Randall Telfer saw plenty of action -- though he caught only six passes last year -- and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick has plenty of upside. Incoming freshman Bryce Dixon was a highly rated recruit.

Washington: John Mackey Award winner Austin Seferian-Jenkins is gone, and that's a big hit, but the Huskies have talent and experience returning at the position. Senior Michael Hartvigson, who has labored in Seferian-Jenkins' considerable shadow, and Josh Perkins are a good combo, while promising youngsters Darrell Daniels and David Ajamu are competing for playing time.

Utah: The Utes lost starter Jake Murphy and big WR Anthony Denham to the NFL, but they get the promising Westlee Tonga back after he missed all but four games in 2013 due to injury. Tonga has seven career receptions for 79 yards and a TD. Siale Fakailoatonga, a former walk-on, was Murphy's primary backup as a true freshman after Tonga went down, and he caught two passes for 18 yards in 2013. Harrison Handley redshirted last season after enrolling early last spring and is a candidate to compete for playing time, as is Evan Moeai.

Stanford: With Stanford's quality and depth at receiver, it will be interesting to see if tight end returns as a top offensive option, which it wasn't in 2013. The potential for the Cardinal to use multiple tight ends again in the passing and running games is certainly there. Official returning starter Charlie Hopkins is back, as are a trio of redshirts -- Greg Taboada, Eric Cotton and Austin Hooper. Stanford signed No. 1-ranked TE-Y Dalton Schultz, and he should compete for playing time immediately.

UCLA: The Bruins use a "Y" or "big" receiver instead of a traditional tight end, and Thomas Duarte is a heck of a big WR. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound true sophomore appeared in all 13 games last season and tied a school freshman record with three touchdown receptions.

WE'LL SEE

Arizona State: The Sun Devils lost the productive Chris Coyle as well as his primary backup, Darwin Rogers. De'Marieya Nelson is an athletic option with a diverse skill set -- he's more a big receiver than a tight end at 224 pounds -- while redshirt freshman Grant Martinez ended up No. 2 on the spring depth chart.

Colorado: Senior Kyle Slavin caught nine passes in 2013. Sean Irwin saw the field as a freshman and is the top backup candidate. Freshman Connor Center played baseball, not football, in high school, but his 6-7 frame at least makes him intriguing.

Arizona: Terrence Miller operated as a big receiver/tight end last year, catching 40 passes for 467 yards, but he's gone. Former QB Josh Kern was his backup. While the position hasn't been a focal point of Rich Rodriguez's offense, it's notable that he signed two touted tight end-type players in his 2014 recruiting class. While the Wildcats are exceptionally deep at WR, the youngsters could become options in the passing game.

Washington State: Nick Begg, a 6-5, 246-pound incoming freshman, is the only player listed as a tight end on the Cougars roster, and Mike Leach has not traditionally used a tight end. Wonder if Begg said he'd sign if Leach agreed to call him a tight end and Leach said, "Sure, whatever."

California: As previously noted this spring, there is no tight end position in Cal's offense, which was probably a factor in Richard Rodgers' early jump to the NFL and Wark's decision to transfer to Oregon State. Rodgers was switched from tight end to wide receiver last season upon coach Sonny Dykes' arrival.

OTHER POSITION REVIEWS

Quarterback

Running back

Wide receiver

Lunch links: Hawaii Bowl blues

June, 26, 2014
6/26/14
11:30
AM PT
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

2014 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
B. Hundley392271315522
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
P. Perkins25115756.39
B. Hundley1596444.110
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
J. Payton6795414.27
D. Fuller594477.61
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense199.4268.5467.9
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring32.927.55.4