Being ranked in the top 10 preseason polls for the first time since 1998 gives valid reasoning for UCLA fans to be extremely excited for the upcoming football season. The Bruins are ranked No. 7 in both polls largely due to the fact that Brett Hundley, one of the best quarterbacks in the country, comes back along with 15 returning starters.
Sports Illustrated has the Bruins at No. 5. Desmond Howard and Lee Corso have also been sipping the UCLA Kool-Aid as they both predicted the Bruins to win the National Championship. Going from 4th in their conference and finishing in the minuscule Sun Bowl to the National Championship is too big of a step for UCLA. Going from the Sun Bowl to No. 1 in the country is like going from your company’s slow pitch softball team to the Los Angeles Angels.
When preseason publications rank teams, they tend to lean on a similar format that can be misleading. They always first ask does this team have a good quarterback with experience returning? Then they ask how many returning starters does the team have? While having a good QB with experience is vital for a successful season, the number of returning starters doesn’t paint the full picture.
The key point often overlooked in preseason publications is the quality of the offensive line. They know fans don’t want to read about overweight players which they know nothing about. UCLA returns four players on the offensive line, but that doesn’t automatically mean the line will be a strength of the Bruins.
In 2013, the UCLA offensive line (and running backs) allowed 36 sacks which placed them at 109th in the nation in that category. A year earlier in 2012, UCLA allowed a whopping 52 sacks. Since when is it a positive to have returning starters that have proven they can’t get the job done? If you called an electrician to fix a broken outlet in your house and he couldn’t fix it the first time, would you hire him a second time?
Sounds like Sports Illustrated’s Lindsay Schnell would call back the same terrible electrician as she described the 2014 UCLA team: “Bringing back an experienced offensive line should help”. No it won’t. Bringing in new players like Miami graduate transfer Malcolm Bunche or finding replacements for the lineman that couldn’t block should help.
Many others are wrongly predicting success for ULCA based on the fact that their offensive line has experience. Heading into the 2013 season, the Bruins also returned four starters on the offensive line but that led to 36 sacks and limited holes for running backs. Hundley did most of the rushing on his own as he led the team in yards as a quarterback with 748.
Due to injuries, UCLA was starting three freshman on the line by October last season. To add to the equation, the Bruins lost their best lineman in Xavier Su’a-Filo who was drafted in the second round by the Houston Texans. Adding more fuel to the fire in the trenches, Torian White, who started at left tackle the past two seasons, was dismissed from the university in April due to a sexual misconduct case White was involved in. White’s injury allowed for some of the newcomers to earn valuable experience last season but most of that experience was watching Hundley run for his life.
Coaches understand the importance of offensive line play much more than sports writers do. When Rick Nueheisel asked Jim Mora Jr. what his top priority was heading into Week 1, Mora responded with “our offensive line and who’s going to play where.”
That tells us two things for UCLA that many are overlooking. First, that Mora Jr. sees what Sports Illustrated, Corso and Howard don’t — the offensive line is a glaring concern for UCLA. Secondly, the coaching staff is still juggling the lineman from position to position and that doesn’t allow for each player to get better at his primary position. It is a lot to ask for a sophomore to learn both guard and tackle when he isn’t necessarily dominant at one particular spot.
They say “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” but if it’s broke, shouldn’t you try to fix it? The inability to fix the line will lead to UCLA finishing 9-3 like I predicted here. To Schnell, Howard and Corso, I have much respect for all three of you but the Bruins are not sniffing the first college football playoff.
Follow Matt Heinz on twitter @MattHeinz_Rant.