A convincing 42-12 victory in the Sun Bowl and the announcement that quarterback Brett Hundley would be returning for another season in Westwood set the expectations pretty high for UCLA for the 2014 season, the third for Jim Mora Jr. since taking over as head coach in 2012.
After a fast start in 2013, the Bruins fell back down to earth with back to back road losses at Stanford and Oregon, then a devastating home loss to ASU, but they rallied late in the season by beating their crosstown rivals USC 35-14 on the road and dominating Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
UCLA lost some key players on defense, but Mora’s strong recruiting on that side of the ball over the last couple of years should enable the front seven to reload and replace departed stars including Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt. The competition in the Pac-12 remains tough, but the Bruins should continue to be the class of the South, slightly ahead of fellow contenders ASU, USC and Arizona.
Playing both Stanford and Oregon at home in 2014 gives them an outside chance of maintaining an undefeated record deep into the season. But that will require an exceptional offseason of preparation and few breaks along the way.
As a proud alum of UCLA myself, this is the most exciting time for the football program since I have been a Bruin. Throw in a Sweet Sixteen hoops showdown against Florida tonight, and I could not be more excited about the direction of my alma mater's athletic programs.
Here are the five biggest questions facing the UCLA Bruins football team this coming season:
1. Will Brett Hundley live up to the Heisman hype? He could have gone to the NFL and been drafted in the early rounds, but like his conference rival Marcus Mariota, Hundley chose to come back for his redshirt junior season and try for something bigger at UCLA.
He has the talent and supporting cast to get it done, but he cannot lose more than a game if he wants to win the Heisman. With Josh Rosen and Asiantii Woulard waiting in the wings, this is likely Hundley's last hurrah in Westwood.
2. Will Myles Jack play more at running back? Jack is the first college player in decades to play both ways at such physically demanding positions. The sophomore linebacker was a sensation last season for UCLA as both a featured back and a goal line weapon.
He played mostly due to injuries at the position, and with Jordon James and Paul Perkins returning, the depth is solid. But Myles Jack showed such a natural knack for the position, he could get even more touches this year and garner some Heisman attention of his own.
3. Can the young defensive talent bring that unit to an elite level? Losing Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt hurts, but headliner recruits at linebacker such as Zach Whitley and Kenny Young will have the opportunity to contribute right away, alongside holdover starters Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks. Kenny Orjioke should also benefit from the departure of Barr with additional snaps rushing the passer.
A school will a storied tradition at the linebacker position should continue living up to that reputation. Newcomer cornerback Adarius Pickett and safety Jaleel Wadood also add further depth to an already young and improving secondary.
4. Will the defensive line replace seniors Cassius Marsh and Seali'i Epenesa? Coach Mora has a defensive background and has made that a focus in his recruiting. The youth on defense has gained valuable experience, but trying to change the offensive reputation of the Pac-12 will be a challenge.
That starts upfront and the addition of Ainuu Taua will surely help bolster a talented young line. Ellis McCarthy is a solid returning starter at defensive end and the new starters will have to continue occupying blockers and allowing the pass rushers to shine.
5. How will Brett Hundley's receiving targets fare with the departure of Shaq Evans? Devin Fuller was the starter alongside Evans last season and provided an outstanding spark from the slot. He has the quickness and route running instinct to give Hundley a reliable target underneath.
Devin Lucien is more of the deep threat on the outside, and sophomore tight end Thomas Duarte is an emerging young talent. All three will have to take on bigger roles for the UCLA offense to rise to the next level.