UCLA football has appeared in each of the first two Pac-12 championship games. The circumstances behind the Bruins’ two opportunities at the Rose Bowl were decidedly different. Last season, UCLA earned its Pac-12 title game berth as bona fide South division. The 2011 Bruins were de facto representatives, the beneficiaries of the USC Trojans serving NCAA-mandated penalties.
And UCLA came oh-so-close to making good on its opportunity last November, dropping a 27-24 heartbreaker to Stanford. The Cardinal went on to the Rose Bowl Game, a feat UCLA has not accomplished since the 1998 campaign. Stanford also won the Rose Bowl, which UCLA has not since the 1985 season.
The Granddaddy of ‘Em All is entering its 100th installment. What could be more fitting than the host of the Rose Bowl to appear in this landmark edition?
It’s hardly an easy road, though.
There’s no confusing the 9-5 2012 UCLA football team with the 6-8 team a season prior, but last year’s team ended on the same note as it predecessor. Both lost three straight to close their seasons. Last season, the Bruins dropped two straight to conference champion Stanford before a lackluster showing in the Holiday Bowl against Baylor.
The progress made in Jim Mora’s first season as head coach was remarkable, but the next challenge for UCLA football is finishing strong and reaching the Rose Bowl.
Since the Bruins’ last Rose Bowl appearance, five other Pac-12 programs have been. That was also UCLA’s only BCS bowl invitation since the system’s inception — eight of the Pac-12′s other 11 members have reached the BCS in the 13 years since.
A third straight appearance in the Pac-12 championship is a very real possibility for the Bruins, though the same could be said for much of the South. The Arizona State Sun Devils return a loaded defense and key pieces on offense; Arizona will enter Year Two under Rich Rodriguez with one of the most experienced rosters in the conference; UCLA’s rival USC Trojans lose notable names, but isn’t short on talent; the Utah Utes are interesting wild cards with the addition of Dennis Erickson as co-offensive coordinator.
To defend its crown, UCLA football must find a replacement for record-setting rusher Johnathan Franklin. Beyond his 1700 yards, Franklin leaves a difficultly filled presence on the field.
“There was a calmness on the field that we had. We knew each other,” quarterback Brett Hundley told Chris Foster of The Los Angeles Times, following the Bruins’ spring game on Saturday.
Hundley is a dark horse, preseason Heisman contender. The dual-threat quarterback had a standout debut season, completing over 66 percent of his pass attempts for 3740 yards and 29 touchdowns. Hundley tacked on another 355 yards and nine touchdowns via the rush.
A strong case can be made for Hundley as the conference’s best quarterback, but he will need a run game supporting him. Jordon James was the most used running back on Saturday and scored a pair of touchdowns. He also carried for just four yards per attempt, 2.15 fewer than Franklin’s 2012 average.
Only so much can be gleaned from the controlled setting of a spring game, but it doesn’t take any particularly keen insight to suggest James has a high standard to replicate. As a change-of-pace back last season, James averaged 3.5 yards in his 61 carries.
On the opposite side of the ball is linebacker Anthony Barr, another of the conference’s best players. Barr and the UCLA defense will get a challenge from the outset when it faces the No. 18 (Nevada) and No. 28 (Nebraska) scoring offenses in the first two games of 2013.
That sets a tone for a brutal schedule. UCLA expends each of its bye weeks before October, then embarks on a conference schedule that includes consecutive road trips to Stanford and Oregon.