TSS Top 50: No. 27 UCLA Bruins

UCLA Bruins
2015 record: 10-3 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-12 (beat BYU 35-28 in the Las Vegas Bowl)

1 Burning Question: Will injury bug stay away from UCLA

With 12 returning starters and a team that features one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country in Josh Rosen, there is much to like about the UCLA Bruins’ chances in 2016. However, one could have really liked the chances with virtually the same cast last season, too.

Instead, the Bruins finished with an 8-5 record and were just 5-4 in Pac-12 play. How does a talented team like the one UCLA put out there in 2015 get to that point? Try being ravaged by injuries to key players including end Eddie Vanderdoes, who was lost for the season due to an ACL injury. It seemed as if every week another key player was injured or went down during the game.

While it was a horrible situation, it could also prove to be a very helpful one to a defense that does lose All-American Myles Jack and NFL 1st round draft pick Kenny Clark at defensive tackle. If the defense can stay healthy and the offense can continue its healthy streak, this team could be very dangerous in a loaded Pac-12 South division.

2 Key Stats To Pay Attention To

300 — At least three teams got over the 300-yard rushing mark against the UCLA defense in 2015. This stat should be easy to understand. Simply put: you can’t win if you are being gouged over and over again on the ground. That is exactly what happened to a defensive line that often found themselves injury prone and undersized. With Vanderdoes back and over 300 pounds, suddenly the group has some hope heading in to 2016.

14.0 — That is the number of sacks allowed by UCLA’s offensive line last season, which led the Pac-12. With three of the five starters from the 2015 O-Line off to bigger and better things in life, the Bruins have to find a group that will keep the less-than-fleet-footed Josh Rosen upright in 2016. If the group can live up to the number that led the Pac-12 in sacks allowed, Rosen and Co. may become one of the most dangerous offenses in a very offensive-orientated conference.

3 Key Games That Will Make or Break the Season

Full 2016 Schedule
9/3 — at Texas A&M
9/10 — UNLV
9/17 — at BYU
9/24 — Stanford
10/1 — Arizona
10/8 — at Arizona State
10/15 — at Washington State
10/22 — Utah
11/3 — at Colorado
11/12 — Oregon State
11/19 — USC
11/26 — at Cal

September 13, at Texas A&M
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 2-2 (only 4 all-time meetings)
Last Year’s Result: Did not play. The last meeting was in the 1998 Cotton Bowl, which the Bruins won 29-23

Why it Matters: Anytime two teams from Power 5 conferences meet up in non-conference play, the college football world needs to take notice. In the case of Texas A&M and UCLA, we find two programs facing crossroads in their programs and a win here is going to be a huge help to whomever gets it. National reputation, top 25 rankings, and potential in conference play are all on the line on the opening Saturday of the CFB season. There are few non-conference games with as much importance as this one in FBS football this season.

November 19, USC
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 3-2
Last Year’s Result: L, 40-21

Why it Matters: If the Pac-12 pollsters are right, this is likely the matchup that decides the South division crown. That’s because the cross-town rivals were picked No. 1 (UCLA) and No. 2 (USC) in the preseason conference poll. Of course, this game has its annual significance but it is also hard to not notice the upped importance of this game outside the city of Los Angeles as of late. Chances are the winner of this game is also winning the division, need we say more?

September 24, Stanford
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 0-5
Last Year’s Result: L, 56-35

Why it Matters:  No team stands more in the way of UCLA winning a Pac-12 title than the Stanford Cardinal. It isn’t just the crushing defeat last season either, the Bruins haven’t found a way to beat Stanford in its last eight tries overall including a loss in the Pac-12 title game of 2012. With this game coming so early on in the season, it is obviously a tone-setter for both teams. If UCLA can get over the Cardinal for once (its average loss in last eight games stands at 18.2 points per game), it may signal a true change in the balance of power in the Pac-12.

4 Key Players

"UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen (3) against Virginia Cavaliers in the first half of a NCAA college football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/ Pasadena Star-News) "

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen (3) against Virginia Cavaliers in the first half of a NCAA college football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015.
(Photo by Keith Birmingham/ Pasadena Star-News)

Josh Rosen, QB — When you are second in passing yards, passing yards per game, and touchdowns amongst all returning quarterbacks in the Pac-12, you are a vital part of the puzzle for your team. It also has led to many believing Rosen is a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. However, Rosen has to up his decision making and hope he has some parts around him to help, or it could be a long season in Westwood. After throwing 11 interceptions to 23 touchdowns last season, there are things for him to work on, but if UCLA is going to challenge for the title it will likely come from the arm of Rosen.

Deon Hollins, LB — No Myles Jack means a greater need for the rest of the linebacking group to step up and fill the gap. Few players may be more ready to take that spotlight than Hollins, who finished 2014 with nine sacks and 10 tackles for loss. His production dipped last season in terms of the numbers, but he took a back seat to Jack and his playmaking abilities. A return to the output of 2014 would be a welcomed sight to the Bruins defense.

Soso Jamabo, RB — Paul Perkins has graduated, and someone has to step up to the plate. Luckily, it appears Jamabo is ready for that increased responsibility in his sophomore season. He finished last season as the second-leading rusher for the Bruins, racking up 403 yards and four touchdowns along with a 6.1 yards per carry average. If UCLA wants to help protect its prized quarterback, there’s no better way to do it than with a stellar running game and Jamabo has to be the one to do it in 2016.

JJ Molson, K — Any time a program is faced with replacing the Lou Groza Award winner  — given annually to the nation’s best kicker — his replacement becomes vital. That’s especially so in a conference where the margin for error is so thin. Molson — who comes from Quebec — has been around the UCLA program since January, knowing that he has some massive shoes to fill. If he can be consistent, this team has yet another scoring weapon to work with.

5 Bold Predictions

5. UCLA finally beats Stanford.

What has been an eight-game losing streak is ripe for the ending if you’re a Bruins fan. Stanford has a big quarterback issue heading in to the season and teams are going to tee off on stopping all-everything Christian McCaffrey as a result. Call this season a perfect storm for the Bruins to get to the top of the Pac-12 heap with a win like this to start conference play.

4. No team will rush for 300 yards on Bruins defense. 

Many fans only see the passing game when they think of the Pac-12, but those with crazy good run games are the ones that have been at the top of the heap for better than a decade. Those defenses that can stop the run have also ruled the roost. UCLA’s defense gave up 300-plus yards on the ground in three conference games last season. That won’t happen this year thanks to the return of Eddie Vanderdoes and some stability in the secondary too.

3. UCLA will win the Pac-12, but won’t make College Football Playoff.

Getting Stanford, Arizona, and USC at home in Pac-12 play and avoiding Oregon and Washington too? What a perfect setup for a UCLA run to the conference crown. Except the schedule is indeed brutal at times, and expecting this team to get out of the Stanford, Arizona, and ASU opening to Pac-12 play unscathed may be a bit much. Still, as long as it holds serve at home against the rest of the South division UCLA should be in prime position for a Pac-12 title game berth. It will win that game (possibly a revenge game against Stanford) but it will also have three losses on its record and preclude it from going to the College Football Playoff.

2. Josh Rosen will win the Heisman Trophy.

Few players in the world of college football excite me as much as Rosen does as a quarterback. No other QB in the country in 2016 can make the throws he can, with the moxie he has, either. After ripping off a “poor” 3,600 yards as a freshman last season, don’t be surprised to see him top the 4,000-yard mark this season. It would also be shocking to see him throw for less than 30 touchdowns. As long as he doesn’t throw 11 interceptions, he’ll be the one standing up in NYC holding the bronze stiff-armed trophy.

1. UCLA’s defense will give up less than 400 yards per game on the season. 

One of a few key stats in terms of those who go from middle of the Pac-12 pack to the top is that of total defense. Last season, it was Washington, Utah, Stanford, and USC, who were in the top four in that category. Three of those four defenses gave up less than 400 yards (USC gave up 400 yards on the button). With eight returning starters, including the best secondary in the Pac-12, this is a group poised to become an elite group in the conference. As long as injuries don’t start piling up, look for the defense to be as stingy as it ever has been under Jim Mora Jr.

About Andrew Coppens

Andy is a contributor to The Comeback as well as Publisher of Big Ten site talking10. He also is a member of the FWAA and has been covering college sports since 2011. Andy is an avid soccer fan and runs the Celtic FC site The Celtic Bhoys. If he's not writing about sports, you can find him enjoying them in front of the TV with a good beer!