LOS ANGELES -- Jim Mora doesn’t have many tells. But on this occasion, he let his hand slip.
While sitting in his office a couple of weeks ago, Mora had just finished explaining how his UCLA Bruins have some goals and hopes for the 2014 season. But he doesn’t necessarily want them made available to the public. Some things are better kept in-house.
A couple of minutes later, however, he was talking about quarterback Brett Hundley’s decision to return for another year, noting that “those 15 games will do wonders for him.”
That would mean in Mora’s mind, the Bruins win the South, win the Pac-12 championship game and advance through the new College Football Playoff and into the national championship game.
Whether it was intentional or Freudian, it speaks to the confidence that Mora has in his program. And regardless of whether it’s actually verbalized, he thinks he’s got a pretty good team that could do some damage on the national stage. Nothing wrong with a coach aiming high -- even if it’s just among his players and in the locker room.
“I think we can be good, but a lot of things have to happen,” Mora said. “We have to stay healthy. We have to capture some momentum early. Before that happens, though, we have to solidify the right tackle spot. I think we have to solidify two or three spots on defense. I think we’re getting there. But we’re not where we need to be. Our focus is very, very narrow.”
Mora’s first two points are applicable to every team. But for a team like UCLA, which exits spring and heads into fall with a lot of positive momentum, they are critical if the Bruins hope to be considered among the league’s A-list teams. With questions at backup quarterback, maintaining the health of Hundley will be paramount. Even an injury that doesn’t knock him out of a game could still stunt the Bruins hopes. We saw that last season with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Establishing a national brand early in the season will also be important. The Bruins should have little trouble when they open at Virginia (2-10 last year) and at home to Memphis (3-9). But the schedule ramps up with trip to play Texas in Arlington, then a week-and-a-half off before traveling to Tempe to face the Sun Devils in a game with significant South Division implications. The last two seasons, the ASU-UCLA matchup has essentially determined the winner of the South Crown.
Then the first half of the schedule wraps up with back-to-back home games against a Utah team it slipped by last season and an Oregon team many expect to win the conference.
The Bruins are expected to start the season ranked in the top 10. And Hundley believes a strong push early could raise their national profile and get them into the top five.
“Two years ago and last year against Nebraska, those games really helped set up our season,” Hundley said. “This year it’s the Texas game. And then at ASU. There’s those big games that can really set the season up for success. Those could make or break us.”
After the Bruins knocked off USC for a second straight season last year, Mora gave an impassioned speech in the postgame news conference about the growth of the Bruins. Since then, they’ve launched a fundraising campaign for their upgraded facilities and the administration ponied up to keep Mora and his staff around a few more years.
The next logical progression would be to win the Pac-12 championship -- no easy task considering UCLA is 0-3 in the last two seasons against Stanford and was beaten 42-14 by Oregon last season. But Mora will say he’s not worried about Stanford or Oregon -- or Arizona State or USC, for that matter. Not yet, anyway.
“Right now the important thing is getting the right guys on the bus and getting it headed in the right direction,” Mora said. “I think we’ve been able to do that. The experience, the pedigree, the passion, the expertise of our staf -- it’s all going in the right direction.
“I think our players are excited because they’ve had a taste of success. They know what it feels like. They want more. They aren’t satisfied. They are still hungry.”