What Makes Us Believe UCLA Is Really as Good as No. 13 in the Country?

Kyle Kensing@kensing45Contributor ISeptember 25, 2013

A Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback. One of the most electrifying defensive playmakers in college football. A dominant start with wins by an average of nearly 35 points per game. 

UCLA is indeed riding high, sitting No. 13 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 14 in the USA Today Coaches Poll.  

The strong start, including a thoroughly dominant second half at Nebraska in Week 3, combined with last year's somewhat surprising nine wins and Pac-12 South title have some thinking big. 

Conversely, no one is downplaying the Bruins' accolades quite like head coach Jim Mora. 

"We've got a lot of work to do before we're deserving of any consideration nationally," he said. "We're still a long way from where we want to be." 

Mora emphasizes that this season is part of a long-term process with the goal of turning UCLA into a fixture atop the Pac-12 and eventually commanding national attention. 

His project looks to be ahead of schedule. 

"It was about creating a culture where eventually we could be discussed as a team that maybe [could] do things nationally," he said. 

Mora may brush off the mounting praise in an effort to keep his Bruins focused, but outside expectations are climbing. 

And with good reason—preseason Heisman contending quarterback Brett Hundley's dual-threat bona fides are as good as advertised early into the season. He has completed two-thirds of his pass attempts for 848 yards and eight touchdowns and rushed for another 157 yards and two touchdowns.

Hundley's done all that in part-time work, coming out early of blowouts of Nevada and New Mexico State. 

The redshirt sophomore effectively spreads the ball around his receiving corps. Shaquelle Evans, Devin Fuller, Grayson Mazzone, Darius Bell and Jordan Payton average between 24.7 and 70 yards per game.

"He's getting better, and he's getting better every week," Mora said of Hundley. "You combine a great skill set with a great work ethic, and he's got the chance to be a special player. He's not there yet, but he's working to be a great player. He's not a guy who is going to leave his potential unfulfilled." 

The quarterback's continued maturation should only further buoy an already impressive offense, similar to his most recognized cohort on the defensive side. 

Linebacker Anthony Barr is a similarly proven performer, a preseason All-American who put up numbers last year comparable to those of such celebrated stars as South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and former Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones. 

"In terms of his potential, he hasn't even come close to his potential. The ceiling for this kid is so high," Mora said. "He's only played the position [17] games. That's not very much." 

As Barr continues to improve, so too should the rest of the Bruin defense. He is the linchpin of the linebacker unit at UCLA, which with Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks alongside him, is already one of the best in the conference, if not the nation. 

"You combine [Barr's] physical skills with his desire to be great, and then his intelligence; he's a very smart kid. He can tell you what everyone is supposed to be doing on the field on every defense we play." 

Hundley and Barr are the established names and leaders, and their individual upside sets the benchmark for the Bruin offense and defense. However, where UCLA is primed to establish itself as a true Top 10 team is in its strides in the less recognized areas. 

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 14: Running back Jordon James #6 of the UCLA Bruins runs away from cornerback Josh Mitchell #5 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers during their game at Memorial Stadium on September 14, 2013 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Get
Eric Francis/Getty Images

UCLA is actually better in certain phases than perhaps expected in the offseason. One such facet is the run game, which has carried on seamlessly despite losing 2012 Doak Walker Award finalist and all-time program rushing leader Johnathan Franklin. 

Jordon James' emergence as a leader of the Bruin offense is one unexpected early development. 

The defensive line parted with NFL draft pick Datone Jones, but senior Cassius Marsh has picked up the mantle at end. Marsh is the veteran leader of a young group featuring celebrated true freshman Eddie Vanderdoes and sophomore Ellis McCarthy on the interior. 

Every week should only make Vanderdoes and McCarthy better, in turn further solidifying the Bruin defense. 

The coming weeks will either expose or validate UCLA's current ranking. In the meantime, it's been well earned. 

Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45. 


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