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Ranking The Toughest Games on UCLA's College Football Schedule in 2016

Josh Rosen

Josh Rosen

UCLA football was left to do some soul-searching after the 2015 season's conclusion. For the first time in head coach Jim Mora's four-year tenure, the Bruins failed to win at least nine games.

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Meanwhile, late-season losses at home to Washington State and the first defeat sustained against crosstown rival USC since Mora's arrival denied UCLA a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance.

After an ugly showing in the Foster Farms Bowl, wherein the Bruins lost to a sub-.500 Nebraska team, Mora made some changes. UCLA's introducing a retooled offense to build around the strengths of talented sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen.

Related: UCLA Bruins 2016 Preview and Prediction

With running back Soso Jamabo, a loaded secondary and playmakers along the defensive line, UCLA has the pieces to rebound and make a run at the conference championship. The road to Levi's Stadium won't be easy, though. Here are the Bruins' 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.

12. Sept. 10 vs. UNLV

In head coach Tony Sanchez's first year, UNLV dropped four games by single digits. A veteran Rebel lineup in 2016 should convert some of those near-misses into wins, and perhaps crash a bowl game.

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In a year with plenty of close finishes, UCLA's visit to Sin City was not among them. The Bruins blasted the Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium last September, 37-3. Do not expect the return visit to Pasadena to be much more competitive.

11. Nov. 12 vs. Oregon State

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UCLA missed Oregon State in 2013 and '14, part of the conference's imbalanced scheduling. Their last meeting before the Bruins' trip to Reser Stadium last November was an Oregon State upset in the Rose Bowl in 2012, Mora's first season.

Last year's 41-0 UCLA romp paid the Beavers back in full. Nevertheless, expect the Bruins to dole out some more change in Oregon State's first trip back to the Rose Bowl since.

10. Oct. 1 vs. Arizona

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Arizona once owned this series, winning every meeting from 2007-11, and six of seven from 2005-11. The script flipped with Mora's arrival, as the Wildcats are batting .000 in four meetings with the Bruins since the 2012 campaign.

Though the 2016 Wildcats should be improved from the version UCLA walloped in Tucson last September, the Bruins' dominance of Rich Rodriguez's teams and home-field advantage land Arizona at just No. 10. Consider it less an indictment of Arizona, and more an indication of the strength of UCLA's schedule.

9. Nov. 26 at Cal 

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UCLA boasted one of the best secondaries in the Pac-12 last season, and arguably one of the most impressive in all of college football given the many pass-happy offenses the Bruins had to face. Among the opponents UCLA grounded was Cal, featuring the No. 1 draft in this spring's NFL draft, Jared Goff.

Cal head coach Sonny Dykes must completely rebuild the passing attack this year with a new quarterback and the departure of last year's top six pass catchers, though the 2016 Golden Bears will be up to speed come the regular-season finale.

UCL is often taken to the limit in its visits to Berkeley. If that's the case once more, it could make for a stressful finale, should the Bruins be in the mix for the Pac-12 Championship Game.

8. Nov. 3 at Colorado

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Two of the bigger heartaches Colorado football's suffered in Pac-12 play under head coach Mike MacIntyre are narrow defeats against UCLA.

The Buffs had an opportunity to steal a win on Halloween 2015, and in '14, took the Bruins to overtime in Boulder. Boasting the most veteran lineup in the Pac-12, Colorado is a dangerous team with the ability to shakeup the South division title race.

UCLA visiting Boulder on a Thursday night in November, when the temperatures are likely to dip below freezing, could put a chill on the Bruins' conference championship hopes.

7. Oct. 8 at Arizona State

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Mora and Arizona State head coach Todd Graham both arrived in the Pac-12 in the same 2012 season. There of their four meetings thus far have come down to the final possession, and the winner in two of those have gone on to appear in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

The Sun Devils stunned the Bruins in the Rose Bowl last season, ending UCLA's perfect start. That UCLA team was better than Arizona State on paper, so the Sun Devils' projected rebuilding season means little — especially in early October, when the mercury in Tempe still threatens to reach triple digits.

That's just one kind of heat UCLA can expect to deal with in the Valley of the Sun. The other is the constant blitzing heat Graham likes to bring with his defense.

6. Sept. 17 at BYU 

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BYU's visit to the Rose Bowl last season was an instant classic. Running back Nate Starks came up big for the Bruins, which got a late score to hold off the upset-minded Cougars.

BYU claims at least a few Power Five pelts every year. UCLA avoided being one such victim last season, but Nebraska last year and Pac-12 counterpart Cal in 2014 were not so unfortunate. The always-raucous LaVell Edwards Stadium crowd promises an inhospitable environment for the Pac-12 visitors, and the Cougars quarterback will challenge UCLA's defense, no matter if it's Taysom Hill or Tanner Mangum lining up behind center.

5. Oct. 22 vs. Utah 

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The visitor has won each of the last three in this series, including Utah spoiling UCLA's previously unblemished record when last visiting the Rose Bowl in 2014.

Last season's matchup was a rough-and-tumble, defensive showdown that ostensibly eliminated Utah from the Pac-12 championship race. Expect a similarly physical matchup this time around, with UCLA's restructured offensive philosophy promising to exchange haymakers with the always-stout Utah defense.

4. Oct. 15 at Washington State

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Among the more impressive wins in Washington State's altogether surprising 2015 was its 31-27 shocker of UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The upset effectively knocked the Bruins out of the driver's seat in the Pac-12 South, removing their margin of error for back-to-back road games with Utah and USC.

Luke Falk threw for 331 yards last season in Pasadena, nine yards shy of Rosen's total that night, but Falk had two more passing scores. As two of the top — if not the top two -— quarterbacks in the Pac-12, expect another shootout on the Palouse.

3. Sept. 3 at Texas A&M 

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Conference pride is at stake when UCLA takes a visit to SEC Country. Week 1 also marks the debut of the Bruins' new offensive philosophy under coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, who replaced Noel Mazzone. Mazzone, meanwhile, is making his debut for... Texas A&M.

Consider the ante raised.

Both UCLA and Texas A&M enter the 2016 season loaded with talent, but face enough question marks that expectations around each program are tempered. An impressive showing here could be the catalyst for a breakout season while a debilitating setback could darken the forecast for the campaign to come.

2.Nov. 19 vs. USC 

UCLA's three-year reign over the Los Angeles football scene ended emphatically last November, as USC frustrated and dominated the Bruins like no opponent all season long.

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The loss was Mora's first to the Trojans, and kept UCLA out of the Pac-12 Championship Game.

The implications of this year's matchup should be similar. Both the Bruins and Trojans have the talent to contend for the conference title, though the South division's title game representative is likely to emerge from this game.

1. Sept. 24 vs. Stanford 

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Stanford is the one mountain — or tree, as it were — UCLA's been unable to climb in Mora's tenure.

The Cardinal have enjoyed some memorable moments at the Bruins' expense in that time, winning the program's first conference championship in more than decade in a thrilling Pac-12 Championship Game in 2012; Christian McCaffrey delivering his breakout performance in last year's encounter; and emphatically denying the Bruins a league title game berth with a blowout win in the Rose Bowl in '14.

The 2016 season brings Stanford's return to Pasadena after that stunning loss on Black Friday two years ago. McCaffrey's still donning the cardinal and white, though remarkably, this will mark the first time a Mora-coached UCLA team has seen a quarterback other than Kevin Hogan behind center for Stanford.

The pairing of UCLA's new-look offense against Stanford's always-stout defense ranks among the Pac-12's more intriguing matchups of the 2016 campaign.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.