In just over nine hours, the UCLA Bruins are set to kick off a campaign full of championship aspirations behind a true freshman quarterback in Josh Rosen. It's only the second time in the past six years that the Bruins will debut in the familiar confines of the Rose Bowl, hosting the Virginia Cavaliers, kicking off at 12:30 PM PST.
Mike London is entering his sixth year as the man in charge in Virginia, and it is a do-or-die season, as the Cavaliers have been struggling. You couldn't tell last year, though, as the Bruins escaped Charlottville with a 28-20 victory, behind the defense. Let's look at some key factors:
Plenty of changes have taken place since that game ended for Jim Mora's side, who were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 South behind USC and Arizona State. Contrast to last year, where they were favorites to win the division, UCLA is going from seasoned Brett Hundley as the man behind center, to Rosen, a true freshman. It isn't a knock on Rosen himself, who was ranked the best quarterback in the state, and fifth nation wide, but the question of inexperience.
It went deep into training camp before Mora announced the starter, with Jerry Neiheisaul, a junior, losing out to Rosen. Nine returning starters on offense will be a boost to Rosen behind center, namely Paul Perkins, the Bruins stout running back. Noel Mazzone, the Bruins offensive coordinator, just wants Rosen to protect the ball.
For the Cavaliers, Matt Johns will be the fourth new starter, in as many years. Johns led the near Cavalier comeback in 2014 after coming in late in the second quarter. The impressive and effective play by Johns during three starts in 2014 led to Grayson Lambert heading to Georgia as a graduate transfer, where he was named starter.
Battle of the Trenches
Jon Tenuta, Virginia's defensive coordinator, wasn't shy of attacking the Bruins last year, sacking Hundley five times. Eli Harold, defensive end, and Max Valles, linebacker, are no longer in Cavalier uniforms, a big loss for Tenuta, as the duo combined for 16 sacks. I don't foresee any hesitancy and expect the Cavs to consistently bring major pressure with hopes of forcing Rosen to make some mistakes.
Jake Brendel, center, and Conor McDermott, tackle, will be relied upon to stop the rush game and protect Rosen. McDermott missed the 2014 meeting, and the improvement in the Bruins pass blocking was day and night after he was inserted back into the starting unit.
On the flip side, the Bruins should have their way against a struggling Cavaliers side, who averaged just over five yards per play, 11th in the ACC during 2014. Rick Wade was greatly impressive during training camps, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson look promising and Takkarist McKinley has had a full summer of training under his belt. Still, the loss of Owamagbe Odhigizuwa won't be easy to overcome.
Perkins is a household name throughout the Pac-12 South Division, afterall, he ran for 1,575 yards a year ago, and will be the focus of Mazzone's game plan. With four returning linemen, and an inexperienced quarterback next to him, Perkins will once again be heavily relied on, namely during the opener. Finding the open lanes and getting quick cuts will be heavily relied upon.
The flipside will see Taquan Mizzell, Daniel Hamm and Albert Reid share the load. Reid is a transfer from the University of Maryland, who rushed for 447 yards during his three years as a Terp. Mizzell's a former five star recruit hasn't reached the half century mark in two seasons, and Hamm ran for a mediocre 75 yards on 17 attempts in 2014.
A clear advantage for UCLA here will be a key component for Mazzone to try to make a statement with a solid game plan, while holding Virginia's running game from being successful.
Ishmael Adams will not be available for the home side, after being arrested for stealing a phone from an Uber driver, and will be out until his court date, scheduled for later this month. Mossi Johnson is projected to take Adams place into the unit, going opposite of Dylan Sim, considered to be a kick off specalist.
Ka'imi Fairbairn is nearly automatic inside of 35 yards for Mora, but can't be counted on beyond that mark. Ian Frye will be a vital part for the Cavs, going 17-17 inside of 40-yards, but 5-10 beyond it. A Lou Garza finalist, if the Bruins allow the Cavs to stick around, Frye may end up taking the game ball.
Give me the Bruins 35-21 here. Despite a true freshman making his debut, the talent disparity and no jet lag from cross country travel, going into a hostile environment will pay dividends. With big aspirations, Jim Mora's side can not afford to have any sort of a step back here.