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CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 6 UCLA

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2013 record: 10-3 overall, 6-3 in Pac-12 Conference (2nd in South division)
2013 postseason: Sun Bowl vs. Virginia Tech (42-12 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 16/No. 16
Head coach: Jim Mora (19-8 overall; 19-8 in three years at UCLA)
Offensive coordinator: Noel Mazzone (3rd year at UCLA)
2013 offensive rankings: 35th rushing offense (196.6 ypg); 43rd passing offense (251.8 ypg); 38th total offense (448.5 ypg); 2oth scoring offense (36.9 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: nine
Defensive coordinator: Jeff Ulbrich (3rd year at UCLA)
2013 defensive rankings: 71st rushing defense (169.5 ypg); 40th passing defense (217.6 ypg);  54th total defense (387.1 ypg); 35th scoring defense (23.2 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: eight
Location: Los Angeles
Stadium: Rose Bowl (92,542; grass)
Last conference title: 1998

THE GOOD
The talent on UCLA’s roster makes the Bruins contenders in the Pac-12 Conference. The play of quarterback Brett Hundley can place the team in national title contention. Hundley is among the Top 3 quarterbacks in college football along with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston. Like Mariota, Hundley would have a first-round pick in May’s NFL draft if he decided to declare early. But he decided to stay in Westwood. The Bruins will gladly continue to build around their talented quarterback. Hundley is an impressive athlete at 6-3 and 226 pounds. Last season. Hundley threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also led the team with 748 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. One of the reasons Hundley returned to UCLA for his redshirt junior campaign is to become a better overall quarterback. Hundley did improve his decision making through the final six games of last season. He only threw one of his nine interceptions after Oct. 26. As Hundley continues to develop his overall game, the Bruins will be the biggest beneficiary. And top-notch quarterback play is a key ingredient for any program ready to make the jump from being good to great.

THE BAD
UCLA head coach Jim Mora is a defensive coach by nature. It had to drive him crazy to see the Bruins play as poorly on defense as they did last seson. The Bruins actually finished fifth overall in the Pac-12 in total defense, but that is more an indictment of the overall defensive play around the league. The country’s 71st overall rushing defense simply isn’t good enough. UCLA wants to be able to compete with any team in the country. And it has to be better on defense. The team relied heavily on two talented freshmen, Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark, along the defensive line last season. Both should naturally improve during their sophomore campaigns. While the team’s starting front is talented, the depth is questionable beyond Ellis McCarthy. Players such as junior Kevin McReynolds, need to provide quality reps as part of the team’s defensive line rotation for them to improve significantly against the run. Isaako Savaiinaea will also be inserted into the starting lineup to replace Jordan Zumwalt at inside linebacker. UCLA knows what to expect of senior linebacker Eric Kendricks, but Savaiinaea’s play could prove to be the difference in the Bruins’ defense as a whole. The Bruins’ progression on the defensive side of the football should be the primary indicator how far the team can go this season.

THE UNKNOWN
UCLA’s offense line was in constant flux in 2013. The team used four different offensive line combinations throughout the season. The team actually changed its starting lineup in six of its last seven games. A lack of continuity up front will have a drastic effect throughout the rest of the offense. While this shouldn’t be a concern which lingers between seasons, the Bruins have already started off on the wrong foot with at least one significant injury along this year’s offensive line. Left tackle Simon Goines will miss at least the first two games of the season after he had bone spurs removed in his ankle Aug. 9. Malcolm Bunche, a Miami transfer, has 13 career starts at left tackle, and he is expected to slide into the spot vacated by Goines. Once Goines returns, the coaching staff will have shuffle the starting lineup. How many times will they have to do so this season? Will Bunche slide inside to guard once Goines is healthy or he remain on the blindside? The fact of the matter is UCLA won’t have their top offensive line on the field until week three of the season with very little practice time as an entire unit. Goines is expected to return just in time for one of the Bruins’ biggest games of the season against Texas. However, he won’t have much time to build a rapport with the rest of the unit. The only ones who will suffer if the offensive can’t gel quickly are Hundley and the rest of UCLA’s skill positions.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: vs. Stanford
It’s been six years since UCLA defeated Stanford. To put that time frame into context, the 2008 season was Rick Neuheisel’s first at UCLA. It was Jim Harbaugh‘s second with the Cardinal. Stanford has gone on to become one of the most successful and intimidating teams in the Pac-12 Conference. The Bruins, meanwhile, have searched for an identity and found one under Mora. This game will be Mora’s opportunity to truly put his stamp on the program. It’s the last game of the regular season. Both UCLA and Stanford are expected to be battling for an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game. Since the game falls on a Friday, both teams will have short practice weeks. The Bruins want to prove they’re among the Pac-12′s elite and a potential national championship contender. Stanford is as tough a team as the Bruins will face all season.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: linebacker/running back Myles Jack
Hundley is the obvious choice here. There is, however, a natural curiosity that will draw college football fans and Heisman voters to Jack. On one hand, Jack is one of the best young linebackers in college football. On the other, he is a dynamic runner when the Bruins decide to hand him the football. Last season, Jack was third on the Bruins’ defense with 49 tackles. He also added seven tackles for loss and 13 deflected passes while dropping in coverage. On offense, Jack led the team with an average of 7.0 yards per carry. He only ran the ball 38 times, yet he was second on the team with seven rushing touchdowns. And Jack accomplished these numbers as a true freshman. The “runningbacker” simply brings a completely different dynamic to both sides of the football. He’ll be expected to make the big play on defense in crucial parts of the game. And the team clearly favors him when they’re around the goal line on offense. The novelty of Jack playing both ways will draw interest from fans around the country. It’s his talent and ability to play at a high level on both sides of the football that will make him a legitimate Heisman contender.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

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