It’s sort of hard to believe UCLA is nearly two decades removed from its last conference title. Sure, the Bruins had Pac-12 championship game appearances in 2011 and 2012, but you have to go back to the glory days of Cade McNown in 1998 to find a Bruins bunch that claimed the league.
Those hoping UCLA can bag an extra game at the Rose Bowl to close out this season have reason for optimism with sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen, dubbed “the Rosen One.” He started from the get-go last year, and he did plenty to impress as a true freshman.
He was also surrounded by plenty of returning talent. That’s not so much the case this time around, but Coach Jim Mora has recruited at a pretty high level over the past five years. Even after significant early departures for the NFL, UCLA isn’t bereft of ability.
The Bruins’ veteran defense should be a little more stable this time, which theoretically would give Rosen and the offense time to sort things. Of course, UCLA opens at Texas A&M (which, for all its foibles, has a history under Kevin Sumlin of impressive play in Week 1) and also has to contend with Brigham Young and Stanford before the month is out. Surviving September is the key, since the Bruins should get better as the year unfolds.
In a lot of programs, losing a Heisman candidate at quarterback (Trevone Boykin), a 1,300-yard receiver (Josh Doctson) and a 1,200-yard rusher (Aaron Green) would be cause for alarm. And it’s certainly true that Texas Christian wasn’t the same team last season once Boykin and Doctson had to deal with injuries.
But the foundation of Gary Patterson’s program is defense; it’s the thing that has allowed the Horned Frogs to thrive even as they hopped from Conference USA to the Mountain West to the Big 12.
Patterson pointed out last year that people groused when the defense went from exceptional (especially against the run) to merely solid. But solid is excellent by Big 12 standards, and much of that defense is back for a program with a history of maximizing production on that side of the ball.
Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is eligible and should ensure the drop-off at quarterback isn’t severe, and assuming the Horned Frogs can stay healthy — which didn’t happen last year — they should be good enough to land in the top third of the Big 12 once again.
It’s an appropriate time to take a minute to truly appreciate what Mark Dantonio has done in East Lansing. The Spartans have won 11 games in five of the past six seasons. They’d never gotten to 11 victories in a year before that.
But wait, you understandably say, there are more games played now, and winning 11 games in a season is more attainable. A valid point. But let’s look at the other end of things: Michigan State has lost five games in the lpst three years. The last time the Spartans absorbed so few setbacks in a three-season span was 1955-57, when they went 24-4. Even the dominant 1965 and ’66 teams were bookended by a 4-5 (1964) and a 3-7 (1967).
In short, if this isn’t a historic peak for Michigan State, it is awfully close. And it would be unwise to count out Dantonio even when the offense took significant hits (and that group experienced a big step back on the field last year).
Michigan State was one wild play away from a perfect regular season, though it could also be argued it was a wild play away against Michigan from not winning its division. Regardless, there’s enough defensive know-how in place to ensure the Spartans don’t regress too much. They’ll even have a chance to win 11 games again this year.
Jim Harbaugh has done a marvelous job throughout the offseason reminding everyone that no one in college football is better at dousing an issue with gasoline, lighting a match and gleefully savoring the ensuing chaos.
All that has a way of obscuring that no matter how much of an irritant he is to his peers, he’s also really good at the whole “winning games” part of his job description.
The Wolverines claimed 10 triumphs last season in Harbaugh’s first year back at his alma mater, doubling the output of Brady Hoke’s lamentable final campaign. He did so with a quarterback cast off from another conference school (Jake Rudock) and found a way to improve the offense by 10 points a game while the defense cut six points a game from opponents.
That all happened with largely the same cast of characters, and the Wolverines will be a fairly veteran team this season as well. This might not be the year Harbaugh gets the better of Urban Meyer, but a friendly schedule (one trip off campus before Oct. 29, three trips out of state all season) should keep Michigan hovering around the top 10 from beginning to end.
Tennessee is a team getting a bump from three factors that always have a way of benefitting preseason perception. The Volunteers have a seasoned, senior quarterback in Joshua Dobbs. They look imposing when compared to the rest of their division, which includes offense-impaired Florida, a Georgia bunch with a new coach and assorted scrapple at the bottom. And they romped in their most recent game, crushing Northwestern in one of last season’s most surprisingly lopsided bowl results.
Two of those matter, namely the quarterback who knows what he’s doing and the division that helps produce an end-of-year cushion. It did last year, when Tennessee won its final six games. And it certainly should again this season. Tennessee might not see a bowl-bound team after Oct. 15 (Kentucky is the best candidate to reach the postseason out of the Vols’ last five opponents).
Yet in a four-week span starting Sept. 24, Tennessee faces Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama. The Vols got credit for playing better teams close last year (such as Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama) and rightfully celebrated a rare victory over Georgia. They’re due to take the next step, and they’ll find out all too soon whether they’re capable of doing so.