Only one thing would be more impressive in Jim Mora’s second year with the 9-5, 6-3 UCLA Bruins. No not winning the National Championship and finishing the year No. 1. So at least three defending the Pacific-12 South Division. UCLA beat cross-town rival Southern California in Pasadena to play opposite of Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship.
The Bruins weren’t expected to win the South last season so you can imagine if they were to repeat the feat this year. As surprising as it was last season UCLA will need more to do even more right in 2013 to get back there. It all starts with sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley. Without running back Johnathan Franklin, junior Jordon James, senior Malcolm Jones and senior Damian Thigpen will battle each other to get on the field each Saturday. The Bruins also will expect a lot out of senior wide receiver Shaq Evans who will probably be Hundley’s go-to man.
As good as UCLA’s offense was last year, the defense is the Bruins’ calling card. Senior linebacker Anthony Barr, junior LB Eric Kendricks and senior defensive end Cassius Marsh will need to remain ferocious forces in UCLA’s front seven with star safety Tevin McDonald kicked off the team during spring. Juniors cornerback Anthony Jefferson and S Dietrich Riley are two members of the Bruins secondary who will miss McDonald’s leadership and skill. With the bar raised on UCLA Barr (83 tackles, 21.5 for loss, 13.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and five pass breakups) will be an invaluable component in forcing punts and field goals. Opponents were 33% on third down last season.
The aforementioned Evans will be one of the Bruins back on punt returns on a regular basis. RBs sophomore Steven Manfro and Thigpen are a few of the excellent kickoff returners UCLA is expected to go with. Sophomore place kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn saw tons of action in 2012 drilling 16-of-22 field goals and 56-of-59 extra points. Fairbairn sank just 2-of-6 from 40 yards or further away. Freshman punter Sean Covington could be the wild card in whether the Bruins have a good or bad season.
UCLA stunned Nebraska a year ago, but going to Lincoln this time around could see the Cornhuskers getting payback. Before the Sept. 14 showdown the Bruins get Nevada at the Rose Bowl and a bye. Another bye follows New Mexico State before beginning a wretched nine-game without a break Pacific-12 Conference slate. Having to go to Arizona, Oregon, Southern California, Stanford and Utah is as tough sledding as anybody will have to navigate on the road this season. If UCLA can even steal two Pac-12 away dates then the Bruins will be in good position to defend the South. Washington and Arizona State during back-to-back weeks in November conclude a four-game November barrage that begins with whipping boy Colorado. Seven victories is UCLA’s ceiling not including a bowl game; however, I’ll go out on a limb and say the Bruins won’t even be bowl eligible and will finish 3-6 during conference play.