The last few months were a tense time for the UCLA Bruins.
Their outlook for the 2014 season and beyond hinged on decisions made by head coach Jim Mora and quarterback Brett Hundley—the faces of the Los Angeles football program.
Had Mora taken another job and Hundley skipped off to the NFL, UCLA likely would've been relegated back to the middle of the pack in the Pac-12. But things went decisively in the other direction.
Mora signed a contract extension and Hundley spurned the pros, and both had Pac-12 and national title hopes in mind. So before their run at that dream begins, a fair warning to league favorites Oregon and Stanford: Beware of the Bruins.
After making his decision, Hundley made his intentions clear to CBS Sports radio host Jim Rome. He wants to bring the program back to the top:
Realizing the opportunity what we have here at UCLA. We’ve built something very special here and just to be able to take part in that and to continue that process of building UCLA back up to national prominence is truly a blessing and something that I wasn’t ready to leave yet.
All the stars are aligned to do something really special at UCLA and really turn the tides and get everybody’s attention.
Step No. 1 for Hundley and Co. will be besting Oregon and Stanford. The Ducks and the Cardinal have combined to win the last five Pac-12 championships, a streak UCLA was hoping to end at four last season.
The Bruins weren't far off in 2013. They suffered just three losses to the three best teams in the conference, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State, obviously giving them plenty of hope for 2014.
For a while in 2013, they looked like they could complete the job.
Through the first three games, they averaged 52.7 points and boasted one of the most lethal offenses in college football, particularly in a decisive 41-21 win over Nebraska. Meanwhile, the defense was looking like one of the Pac-12's stronger units, led by a devilish linebacker corps of Anthony Barr, Myles Jack, Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks.
Then, in an Oct. 3 win over Utah, the turning point of the season came when star running back Jordon James went down with an injury. James had amassed 424 yards and four touchdowns through the first three games and was one of the most productive running backs in the country at the time.
After James' injury, the UCLA offense was never really the same. Without the threat of James in the backfield, opposing defenses keyed in on and halted Hundley. The loss didn't bite the Bruins until a few weeks later when they fell flat in a 24-10 loss to Stanford and 42-14 a week later against Oregon.
UCLA would eventually rebound offensively, particularly after plugging Jack in at running back. Once teams were forced to respect the Bruins' backs, the offense took off once again.
Next year, James will be back, along with Jack, Hundley, Mora, Kendricks and several other key pieces to the puzzle that was close to being constructed in 2013. The Bruins will also add in the No. 3 recruiting class in the Pac-12, including several blue chip prospects who could contribute immediately.
Perhaps the most important part of the equation will be the offensive front, where UCLA will return all but one starter: Xavier Su'a-Filo. However, while the Bruins will be set on the interior, they'll need to pinpoint some reliable playmakers on the outside.
|UCLA Top Returning Receivers for 2014|
|Paul Perkins (RB)||24||296||0|
Leading receiver Shaquelle Evans is gone, leaving UCLA devoid of a go-to playmaker on the outside. An astounding 26 receivers caught passes in Westwood last season, but only Evans had more than 700 receiving yards.
No receiver even totaled 50 receptions. While a committee approach to receiving is often beneficial, having one or two elite athletes on the edge could take UCLA's offense over the top.
No. 2 receiver Devin Fuller will be back and could be depended on to take that lead role. One newcomer could also audition for the job. UCLA will bring in US Army All-American receiver Austin Roberts, who could make an instant impact at 6'2', 211 pounds.
Neither Fuller, nor Roberts or any other receiver will have to become Brandin Cooks and win the Biletnikoff Award—consistency and reliability will be the objective. If UCLA can just give opposing defenses one more thing to think about it could be enough for the Bruins to take that next step.
With balance on offense and defense, strong coaching and a Heisman Trophy hopeful at quarterback, UCLA checks off the requirements to be considered among the nation's elite.
With good health, and of course some luck, the Bruins can take that next step. But one thing is clear: The Pac-12 is more than just Oregon and Stanford.