When UCLA takes on Cincinnati Saturday night the matchup itself won't be getting most of the attention. Instead, the game represents a homecoming of sorts as new Bruins head coach Chip returns to a place he's not only familiar with but has had success in.
The hallowed grounds of the Rose Bowl represent the rich past of college football, from the first-ever bowl game, to the greatest contest ever played. Kelly's teams at Oregon have contributed to the history of the Rose Bowl, and he's now the stadium's future. That future becomes present when his Bruins kick off a new era against the Bearcats.
Kelly comes to UCLA with plenty of buzz and eager anticipation after his four seasons as Oregon coach (with an additional two as offensive coordinator) made the Ducks the talk of college football. But Kelly inherits a much different situation in his return from four years in the NFL (and one on TV), stepping into a UCLA program coming off back-to-back losing records — a much different scenario than taking over for Mike Bellotti after a 10-win campaign.
A brutal schedule awaits the innovative Kelly and his UCLA Bruins. Saturday's matchup with a Cincinnati team coming off a 4-8 finish in Luke Fickell's debut season may be one of the less daunting dates on the docket — and the Bearcats have pieces to contend for the upset in Pasadena.
Cincinnati at UCLA
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: UCLA -15
Three Things to Watch
1. What gives in the run game
Cincinnati was not exactly proficient on the ground a season ago. The Bearcats' averages of 135.3 rushing yards per game and 11 rushing touchdowns for the season ranked No. 100 and No. 116 among all FBS programs.
On the flip side, UCLA's rush defense in 2017 was historically inept. The Bruins allowed 287.3 yards per game, dead last among the FBS — and, if extended to include the Football Championship Subdivision, dead last among all Division I programs.
The balance has to tip in favor of one or the other bucking last season's trend to open 2018. This could be the most critical factor in determining Saturday's outcome.
2. UCLA's quarterback situation
Known for his secretiveness at Oregon, Kelly's stuck to that philosophy with UCLA, at least in regard to the Bruins' quarterback situation, waiting until Thursday afternoon — just before kickoff of the first round of games — to name a starter.
Bucking convention, Kelly did not go with either the talented freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson or 2017 backup Devon Modster, both of whom have dual-threat ability. In a move perhaps signaling his intentions, Kelly went with Michigan transfer Wilton Speight — perhaps the further version of what a Kelly quarterback was in the coach's Oregon days.
Those years in the NFL seem to have made an impact on Kelly's approach, and with so many teams now running systems similar to those past Oregon squads, this may serve as another example of the coach going against the grain.
3. Turnover battle
A philosophical change in defensive approach for UCLA has the potential to generate turnovers; a lot of turnovers.
The Bruins have an excellent secondary returning, with cornerback Nate Meadors (who came on strong enough at the end of 2017 to appear on NFL teams' radars); veteran Adarius Pickett; and highly talented sophomore Darnay Holmes. How aggressive defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro opts to go with his front seven blitzes on Saturday is unclear; Cincinnati allowed just 17 sacks in 2017, and the loss of linebacker Josh Woods for the season to a knee injury does limit the Bruins somewhat.
Still, the amount of potential in the secondary suggests plenty of interception opportunities in long down-and-distance situations.
UCLA's look under Chip Kelly is shrouded in mystery, which is probably by design. Can we expect a team that philosophically aligns with the high-powered Oregon teams, responsible for changing the very face of the Pac-12? Will the Bruins roll with an NFL-influenced approach, more akin to Kelly's teams in Philadelphia and San Francisco, and building off a similar style under Jim Mora's regime?
It's difficult to project — doubly so, with the Bruins losing six players to suspension just this week. The team taking the Rose Bowl Stadium field Saturday will be far from a finished product, but enough talent returns that UCLA should get past Cincinnati somewhat comfortably. The question marks on defense are abundant given last season's struggles, with the loss of key contributors like Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Kenny Young. Barring a dramatic turnaround, the Bearcats could score enough to keep it interesting.
Prediction: UCLA 38, Cincinnati 27
Top photo by Don Liebig/UCLA Photography, courtesy of uclabruins.com)