All four qualifying teams for the inaugural College Football Playoff—Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, and Oregon—ranked in the top five in the Associated Press’ preseason poll in 2014. By that tacit framework, the UCLA Bruins, which open the 2015 season ranked No. 13 in the poll, may as well be an ocean away from the playoff’s second installment.
However, the team that has long idled in the shadows of the USC Trojans and won just three bowl games from 1998 to 2012 shouldn’t be glossed over as a dark horse playoff candidate in 2015 to make college football’s final four.
In three seasons at the helm in Los Angeles, Coach Jim Mora has produced two 10-win seasons, two bowl victories, and consecutive top-20 finishes in the Associated Press’ end-of-season rankings. “Every year for me is a new proposition, a different proposition,” Mora said at Pacific 12 media days. “There are always questions that need to be answered. There are always expectations that you’re trying to meet.”
The questions are obvious: Can the program rebound from the loss of top-tier quarterback Brett Hundley? Can Mora help UCLA string together three consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in school history?
The burgeoning conversation, though, is whether or not this team can vault into the national title picture after taking a hiccup of a season last year.
It was announced late last month that true freshman, blue-chip prospect Josh Rosen is the team’s starting quarterback. While this may trigger glaring question marks for pundits and fans alike, consider that four of the last five national champions had first-year starting quarterbacks. And Rosen isn’t some tepid recruit, either: In three years as a starter, the 6-foot-4 quarterback amassed 8,473 passing yards, 90 touchdown passes, and led St. John Bosco High to the apex of the high school football national rankings.
Although there isn’t a single conference in the country that places more of a premium on passing and scoring than the Pac-12, Rosen won’t have to solely shoulder the weight of the offense. UCLA returns the conference’s top rusher from a season ago, Paul Perkins, and wide receivers Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte, and Devin Fuller—all of whom had more than 400 receiving yards — return to the fold.
Mora loses 20.3 percent of his team’s offensive snaps from a season ago and 30.7 percent of his defensive snaps. While the percentages do indicate volatility on both sides of the ball, each is substantially lower than what Arizona (36.8 percent, 46.5 percent) and Oregon (36 percent, 40.5 percent) have to patch. Furthermore, the Bruins brought in a top-12 recruiting class this season for reinforcement.
First-year defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will hope to assist a formidable squad that excelled in its ability to prevent the explosive drive. The Pac-12 Conference is essentially highlight-fodder on the offensive end, but the Bruins had the sixth-best defense in the country last season at stopping the explosive drive — or the portion of the opponent offense’s drives that averaged at least 10 yards per play.
The ability to make the opponent earn its points with lengthy drives is paramount in a conference that has led all Power Five conferences in scoring the past two seasons, and averaged a national-leading 446.24 yards in total offense last season. It also creates more potential for turnovers, as was the case in the video below.
There’s virtually no conversation being had that doesn’t include a Pac-12 team qualifying for the College Football Playoff. It’s practically a given. Parsing the schedules of the top teams in the conference —Oregon, USC, Arizona, Arizona State, and UCLA — it’s evident that the Ducks have the easiest schedule.
However, UCLA, which notably won’t have to play the Ducks in the regular season, have the easiest schedule of the aforementioned teams as calculated by last season’s Fremeau Efficiency Index (a scoring rate analysis indicating a team’s ability to efficiently move the ball down the field, taking into account team performance in the three major areas: offense, defense, and special teams), despite having three scheduled away games against ranked opponents.
There are myriad questions heading into the 2015, like whether any program can survive the brutality that is inter-conference Pac-12 or Southeastern Conference play. But UCLA has tools at its disposal and a coach that has brought football back into the school’s periphery. If Rosen produces and the defense continues to avert back-breaking, “SportsCenter”-ready plays, UCLA could find themselves in the College Football Playoff.