Mailbag: Tom Bradley at UCLA, USC Heisman candidates


Happy Friday. Welcome to the mailbag.

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To the notes!

Robert writes: How big of an impact do you think Tom Bradley will have on UCLA's defense this season? Last season, Jeff Ulbrich seemed in over his head at times, and I bet a better defense could have been the difference in turning at least one loss (see: Utah) into a win. Do you expect to see a better defense in Westwood, and how important is the defense going to be especially with a new QB on the other side of the ball?

Ted Miller: Based on what it has coming back -- eight starters and a solid number of experienced backups -- UCLA should have the best defense in the Pac-12 next year. The operative word being "should," and we all know that term of speculation often goes splat in college football.

But if that proves true, UCLA will win the Pac-12.

While you might be uncharitable in saying Ulbrich was "in over his head at times," I don't disagree. Keep in mind he was still an NFL linebacker in 2009, so he was far from an experienced coach when he was promoted before the 2014 season after Lou Spanos returned to the NFL. His sideline tiff with Jim Mora during the Oregon game, in which he seemed frustrated by, er, input from Mora, showed a lack of poise and coaching maturity.

Mora's hiring of Bradley is at the very least interesting, as Bradley is the opposite of Ulbrich, and not just because he's a 4-3 coach and Mora and Ulbrich favor a 3-4. Bradley is a Pennsylvania and college football lifer -- he spent 37 years at Penn State as a player and a coach. Ulbrich was a West Coast lifer, a Hawaii grad and NFL grinder. Bradley's major "west" penetration was coaching last year at West Virginia, where, by the way, his defense improved by nearly six points allowed per game (33.3 ppg to 27.6).

We know Bradley can coach defense. Between 2004 and ’09, the Nittany Lions never finished lower than 10th nationally in scoring defense. But can he adapt to the diversity of Pac-12 offenses, which he most certainly didn't face at Penn State? On the plus side, his year in the Big 12 gave him a taste of spread, up-tempo attacks, as will competing in practice with the Bruins offense under coordinator Noel Mazzone.

Further, the whole 3-4 to 4-3 distinction is often overblown, as just about every team seems to be a hybrid of one form or the other, trying to disguise what they are doing or when they go with a nickel package. Often the only difference is whether the fourth guy on the line of scrimmage has his hand on the ground or not.

What Bradley's success or failure probably will turn on, though, is his state of mind. Is he excited about coaching at UCLA? Does he still have the fire in his belly? Is he looking back at Penn State too often, feeling regret or like a victim, or is he entirely in the present? Can he work well under Mora, a hard-driving, tightly wound defensive coach who's cut from a different cloth than Joe Paterno?

I'm well aware of how Bradley and folks at UCLA would answer those questions. But we also all know public comments don't always match reality.

I certainly think Bruins fans are justified in being optimistic, but Bradley's hiring isn't a sure thing. We should have a pretty good idea of how this marriage is going to work by mid-October, as the Bruins first three Pac-12 games are against Arizona, Arizona State and Stanford.

Oscar writes: So Cody Kessler and Adoree Jackson are potential Heisman candidates this year. What kind of pressure does this put on Sark and other coaches to make sure they get at least invited to New York? Coaches and players say they don’t pay attention to that kind of noise but I don’t buy it.

Ted Miller: Coaches pay attention to two things: 1. Winning; 2. Recruiting. Everything else that goes with that -- graduating players, maintaining discipline, etc. -- circles back to those two things.

That said, Sarkisian will do what he can to support any of his players candidacies for national awards, as long as it doesn't run counter to his two prime directives. He will sing Kessler's and Jackson's praises in news conferences. He will work with his sports information office, which just so happens to be pretty much the best in the country at what they do. (By the way, that's not just me supporting a cooperative SID office. That's an accepted fact among all college football writers.)

Will he give Kessler a few more throws to pad his stats? Probably, if he doesn't see a threat to his prime directives. Will he perhaps give Jackson more touches on offense to strut his fancy pants, going-both-ways stuff? Probably, if he doesn't see a threat to his prime directives. My guess, however, is Sarkisian will be too worried about potential injury to put those two stars at risk late in a game.

As for the players, if they become focused on individual awards, the Trojans' season will sink. It's the kiss of death. I don't see that happening.

The best way to win a Heisman? Win games. Kessler and Jackson simply need to do their thing within the framework of their team and what their coaches ask, and things will take care of themselves.

Christopher writes: Not many people seem to be talking about Arizona but I really like their chances to make the playoffs. Although they don't have a bye week, they have a favorable non-conference schedule and play some of their most difficult opponents in UCLA and Utah at home. They return nearly everyone on offense except the line but seem to have replenished it nicely with the addition of Tagaloa. On defense, obviously everyone talks about Scooby but they seem poised to improve on what was a big leap in the right direction last season. What are your thoughts on them reaching the playoff in year 4 of the RichRod era?

Ted Miller: Reaching the playoff might be a stretch -- Do the Wildcats look like a team that could emerge from the Pac-12 at 12-1? -- but stranger things have happened.

You mention the "favorable nonconference schedule." I'd rate that as a negative. As Baylor fans know, I'm a bit of an obsessive about cowardly nonconference schedules, and Arizona's is notably weak. It's, yes, Baylor-esque. In my mind, that pretty much disqualifies the Wildcats if they don't go undefeated, at least in terms of comparing them to other one-loss teams that scheduled more ambitiously.

That said, Arizona is squarely in the mix to repeat as the South Division champions, and that means the Wildcats are in the mix to win the Pac-12. Winning the Pac-12 this fall will provide a strong résumé for the selection committee, poor nonconference slate or not.

To win the Pac-12, QB Anu Solomon will need to take a significant step forward in terms of consistency, the offensive line will need to come together and the defense will need to become a top-50 unit. Answering those three questions rates as entirely possible to me.

So, while I'm skeptical about the Wildcats reaching the four-team CFP in 2015, I'm not skeptical of them at least playing themselves into the conversation and the overall top-10.

Josh from LA writes: Road games were a struggle for UCLA for years under former coaches, while at home they would always put up a fight. Now it seems like under Mora UCLA plays better on the road than it does at home; see 3 home losses last year but 10 consecutive wins away from home. What do you make of this?

Ted Miller: I think it's a function of scheduling more than anything. If the Bruins had played Cal, Colorado and Washington at home last year instead of Utah, Oregon and Stanford, their home record would have been better.

UCLA was 5-1 at home the year before and 5-2 in 2012.

As I previously noted, 2014 was pretty odd in terms of home vs. road records in the Pac-12, and UCLA wasn't the only team that ended up with a better road record. Utah, which has one of the conference's loudest stadiums, went 1-3 at home and 4-1 on the road, including a win at UCLA. The top five teams in the Pac-12 South were 13-9 on the road last year, compared to 17-6 at home.

What I'm saying is I don't see this as a thing. In fact, I'd bet the Bruins are better at home this year than on the road, mostly as a function of schedule.

Daisy from Addicted to Quack writes: I pretty much concurred with all of your coaching hot seat ratings for the North division, but it left me wondering - had Mike Riley not bolted for Nebraska this year, what temperature would you have given his seat at OSU this season? I always found the love/vexation relationship (not love/hate of course because, Mike Riley) between Beaver fans and the Beaver coaching staff interesting to watch.

Ted Miller: If Riley had remained in Corvallis, I'd guess his seat would rate among the warmest in the Pac-12, so I'd give him a "3."

The soft landing that new Beavers coach Gary Andersen gets -- he won't be saddled with high expectations this fall as his team is rebuilding -- would have been a strong negative for Riley, as he would have been responsible for the big roster questions. My guess is that this played at least some role in Riley's thinking when he bolted for Nebraska.

This was part of the reason I wrote that everyone "won" when Riley left Oregon State. Riley got off a potential hot seat and received a fresh start at a big-stadium program, which he's never before coached. Nebraska got a proven coach and good staff that's probably highly motivated after listening to the carping in Corvallis. And Oregon State avoided a potentially sad, sloppy and expensive divorce and hired a highly respected coach to replace Riley.