UCLA football neared the apex of the Pac-12 each of head coach Jim Mora's first three seasons at the helm. However, the Bruins have fallen just short each time.
The 2015 lineup may be Mora's best yet, however. UCLA returns the Pac-12's leading rusher of 2014, Paul Perkins; a deep and multifaceted wide receiver corps; and one of the best defensive front sevens in the nation.
UCLA's lingering question is quarterback. Brett Hundley is the only starter Mora's known in his time there, and the new starter has very little time to acclimate before the Bruins dive into the meat of the challenging Pac-12 South. UCLA travels to defending divisional champion Arizona in the first month, before matching up against heavyweights Arizona State and Stanford in the weeks that follow.
That stretch should define UCLA's championship worthiness pretty quickly. Here are the Bruins' 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 12 at UNLV
There's rarely a sure thing in Las Vegas, but the only way UCLA is losing this early-season tune up is if the team bus breaks down outside Barstow.
11. Nov. 14 vs. Washington State
Washington State hasn't appeared on UCLA's schedule since 2012, the result of the divisional rotation. That season was Mike Leach's first on The Palouse, when the installation of his "Air Raid" offense promised a return to contention for the long-suffering Cougars.
Three seasons later, Washington State has yet to finish above .500. The 2015 season is a pivotal one for Washington State, and any threat the Cougars pose to UCLA in this late-season encounter could hinge on how successful the previous two months are for them.
10. Nov. 7 at Oregon State
First-year head coach Gary Andersen will play a lot of youngsters, and the Beavers are sure to experience growing pains while adjusting to new schemes. Observing from three months out, this is one UCLA should dominate.
The same thing could have been said of Arizona State in its trip to Corvallis last November, however. Don't think a rendezvous in Reser Stadium can't have an impact on the Pac-12 title race.
9. Sept. 5 vs. Virginia
Virginia has repeatedly underachieved recently, but the Cavaliers' underwhelming records should fool no one. They invade the Rose Bowl Week 1, employing an aggressive defensive style that can vex a first-time starter, whether the Bruins line up veteran reserve Jerry Neuheisel or freshman Josh Rosen.
Last year in Charlottesville, Virginia got to Hundley four times. When he wasn't sacked, Hundley was still under constant duress and Virginia nearly pulled off the upset.
8. Oct. 31 vs. Colorado
A botched play in the red zone just before halftime ostensibly prevented Colorado from scoring the upset over UCLA last October, as the two teams went to double-overtime before the Bruins escaped victorious.
Third-year head coach Mike MacIntyre has Colorado positioned to be a dangerous spoiler for someone in the deep Pac-12 South. The Buffs will try to be the proverbial raisin box in UCLA's trick-or-treat bag come Halloween in the Rose Bowl.
7. Sept. 19 vs. BYU
BYU has a long track record for upsetting Power 5 opponents. Among the notches in the Cougars' Power 5 belt is a 59-0 thrashing of UCLA in the Rose Bowl in 2008. Considering those on UCLA's 2015 roster were in junior high or elementary school when that game was played, revenge won't be used as motivation. Holding serve at home against a tough opponent should be incentive enough for the Bruins.
Slowing down dual-threat quarterback Taysom Hill will decide UCLA's fate in this one.
6. Oct. 22 (Thursday) vs. Cal
One of UCLA's many close finishes in 2014 was a back-and-forth win at Cal, which ended with Marcus Rios' interception of quarterback Jared Goff. The strong-armed Cal quarterback returns with a more experienced lineup around him, and perhaps the best Golden Bear team overall since 2009.
Thursday nights can be fertile ground for upsets, and Cal's visit to the Rose Bowl comes at the tail-end of UCLA's critical Arizona-Arizona State-Stanford stretch.
5. Nov. 21 at Utah
Utah gave UCLA tough matchups each of the previous two seasons before finally breaking through last October. The Utes' back-and-forth win at the Rose Bowl marked a turning point for them in their time as Pac-12 members, while the loss helped eliminate UCLA from the College Football Playoff discussion.
The Bruins aim to be in that conversation in the penultimate week of the regular season. If they remain in that hunt after a cold, late-November night in Rice-Eccles Stadium, it's a testament to UCLA's mettle.
4. Sept. 26 at Arizona
UCLA's had Arizona's number since losing five straight from 2007-11. Last year's 17-7 win extended Mora's streak to three over the Wildcats since 2012, which is a feat no other Pac-12 team has accomplished against Rich Rodriguez's bunch.
Winning streak or not, however, the Pac-12 South title goes through Tucson. The Wildcats claimed last year's crown at the very same time UCLA saw it slip away against Stanford.
As the Pac-12 opener, this one sets an important tone.
3. Oct. 3 vs. Arizona State
The visitor won every previous meeting since Todd Graham and Mora arrived at their respective programs. UCLA used defensive and special teams touchdowns late in the second and early in the third quarters last year to cruise to a blowout win.
A repeat of last year's margin is unlikely; expect something more akin to the previous three years, when each contest came down to the final play. Since both the Bruins and Sun Devils figure to factor into the Pac-12 South title race, this one is critical for an early, inside track — especially since both will be coming off tough games the week prior.
2. Nov. 28 at USC
The Los Angeles rivalry is always bitter, but it's started taking on a new importance since UCLA's rise in the Pac-12. The Bruins are winners of three straight, all by double digits.
That's not lost on USC. With the Trojans expected to return to Pac-12 title contention, claiming the city championship is critical to their overall goals. The 2015 season sees both teams arguably at their most talented at the same time since the 1990s. This could be a de facto Pac-12 South championship.
1. Oct. 15 (Thursday) at Stanford
Stanford's white helmet might as well be the whale to Mora's Captain Ahab. Four times since becoming the Bruins' head coach, Mora's faced David Shaw's Cardinal. Four times, Mora's team lost.
Each of the last three meetings have had lofty implications. In 2012, UCLA missed a field goal to force overtime in the Pac-12 Championship Game. In 2013, the Bruins were knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten. Last year's regular-season finale denied UCLA the Pac-12 South division title.
Stanford is symbolic glass ceiling UCLA must break through to finally call itself the Pac-12's elite.