No college football game gained in intrigue going into this weekend more than the showdown in the Rose Bowl between LSU and UCLA. The home-standing Bruins got pretty rave reviews by jumping on Hawaii and cruising to a dominating 44-10 rout in Week 0. Meanwhile, off the field, the Tigers had way more than a mere football game on their minds as they were dealing with the fallout of Hurricane Ida back home and having to load up the buses and spend their week practicing in Houston to avoid the storm's chaos.
How will these two factors influence what will transpire on the field? Tune in on Saturday because this could be interesting.
You could probably say that both of these teams have been anxious to push that awful 2020 season as far back into the rearview mirror as possible. The Tigers came off that famously fabulous national championship season of 2019 and were No. 6 in the AP preseason poll last year. But they went on to experience their first non-winning season since Prince was singing about 1999, finishing a disappointing 5-5. The Bruins, meanwhile, seemed primed for their first postseason game since 2017 last year but blew some late leads over USC and Stanford in a pair of slugfest losses to finish at 3-4.
Both teams are hyper-experienced, with LSU having lost just 14 lettermen off last year's team and UCLA losing only seven.
LSU at UCLA
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4, 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Network: FOX
Spread: LSU -3
When LSU Has the Ball
It will be interesting to see what the LSU offensive identity will be this season. The 2020 season was the first time in eight previous years where the Tigers did not have a 1,000-yard rusher. Even in the short 10-game season, Tyrion Davis-Price led the team with a measly 446 yards.
And now, the expected starting quarterback, Myles Brennan, is out indefinitely due to a broken arm. So plug in Max Johnson, who, in his two starting assignments at the end of last season, threw for 784 yards and six touchdowns to lead LSU to wins over then-No. 6 Florida and Ole Miss. The 6-foot-5 lefty will have experienced wideouts in returnees like Kayshon Boutte (46 catches, team-high 735 yards) and Jaray Jenkins (23 catches, 397 yards), plus a pair of highly-regarded incoming freshmen in Chris Hilton Jr., Deion Smith, and Brian Thomas Jr., all considered top-20 receivers in their class.
But the O-line will be a big focus for the Tigers. There are four of five returning starters up front, but head coach Ed Orgeron was lamenting their sketchy pass protection in preseason camp, so that could be an issue. Especially with the Bruin defense displaying a swarming, hair-on-fire style last week, haggling Hawaii QB Chevan Cordeiro all game long. The Bruin defense is a junior-senior-heavy group that has developed good depth, so the Tiger offense will have its hands full.
When UCLA Has the Ball
For all the back-pats we gave the Bruins against Hawaii, what they saw was child's play compared to what they'll see this week. Granted, the Tigers gave up a school-record 34.9 points per game last year, but the talent level the Bruins will be facing is going to be significant.
Starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a returning second-team All-Pac-12 talent, but his passing skills against Hawaii left a little to be desired. He completed just 50 percent of his passes and missed some wide-open targets. Look for Bruin offensive coordinator Justin Frye to utilize tight end Greg Dulcich a bit more this week after he led the team in receiving yards last season but got just one catch versus Hawaii. They'll also probably try to build some early confidence with some underneath routes while also avoiding throwing against those lethal cornerbacks the Tigers have in Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks.
But to the Bruins' credit, the running game was brutish for sure. Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet gained 106 yards on just six carries (all in the first half), and former Duke transfer Brittain Brown added 78 yards on 13 carries as the Bruin O-line gave the offense a very solid push, especially in the first half. Additional good news is that starting center Sam Marrazzo will return after sitting out the opener. That line unit starts three sophomores who all took their lumps as freshmen last season. It will be really interesting — and really a huge key — to see how this ground game does against the Tigers.
Full disclosure here, I am an LSU grad and I saw last week's UCLA win over Hawaii in person. So I am well aware of how the Tigers could barely swat a gnat on defense last year, and I saw firsthand how aggressive and improved the Bruins' defense showed vs. the Warriors. I know the LSU fans will look around the Rose Bowl, devoid of students because UCLA hasn't started classes yet, and snicker about how they have more fans there and how they should rout the unranked Bruins because they have the superior program.
But UCLA has a big advantage in already having a game under their belts and the possibility of LSU being a little preoccupied with what is going on back home. Something tells me the Bruins are going to be a prickly bunch for the SEC monsters to beat. Last year, all four of UCLA's losses were by six points or less. I'm guessing it'll be more of the same here. The Bruins will be a bigger test than most expect, but I've still got the Tigers by a tail in this one.
Prediction: LSU 38, UCLA 34
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks