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Ranking the Toughest Games on UCLA's College Football Schedule in 2017

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After a dismal, 4-8 finish in the 2016 season, UCLA football needs to bounce back in 2017. The return of Josh Rosen at quarterback, after missing much of last season with a shoulder injury, sets a positive tone. UCLA also is rife with talent, the result of strong recruiting throughout head coach Jim Mora's tenure.

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If the Bruins are to rally from last season and again contend for the top spot in the Pac-12 South, however, they must navigate one of the most difficult schedules in all of college football.

Continuing with tradition, UCLA avoids playing FCS competition. With Texas A&M kicking off the non-conference slate, the Bruins see 10 Power Five conference opponents in total. Their matchups against Group of Five competition offer little reprieve, however. both Hawaii and Memphis played in bowl games last season, and could challenge for their respective conference divisions in 2017.

12. Sept. 9 vs. Hawaii

Head coach Nick Rolovich led an incredible turnaround in his first year at Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors ended a six-year bowl-game drought with a blowout of Middle Tennessee, which lays the foundation for a potential breakthrough 2017.

College Football Rankings: Hawaii

Hawaii returns eight starters on offense, including the rushing tandem of 1,000-yard back Diocemy Saint Juste, and dual-threat quarterback Dru Brown. Replacing 1,000-yard receiver Marcus Kemp will be a challenge, however. So, too, will scoring a win in Pac-12 country. The Rainbow Warriors haven't beaten a Pac-12 team on the road since opening the 1992 campaign with a victory at Oregon's Autzen Stadium.

11. Nov. 24 vs. Cal 

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For a second consecutive season, UCLA closes out against Cal. The Golden Bears won for the first time in the series since 2012 last year, in what proved to be the final game of Sonny Dykes' tenure as head coach. In steps Justin Wilcox, a former defensive coordinator with considerable Pac-12 experience at Washington and USC. He also played at Oregon in the 1990s.

Wilcox is overseeing a rebuild that likely has Cal destined for the cellar in a tough Pac-12 North. At this late juncture in the season, the Golden Bears could either be figuring out the new direction for the program, making them dangerous final-week opponents; or struggling to get to the finish line.

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10. Oct. 14 at Arizona

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UCLA's 45-24 romp over Arizona a season ago extends the Bruins' winning streak in the series to five games. Only once since Mora became UCLA head coach in 2012 has the score been within 10 points. This dominance is a complete reversal of fortune after Arizona won six of seven from 2005-11. It's been one of the most notable hurdles for Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez in his tenure.

Like UCLA, Arizona needs to bounce back from severe disappointment in 2016. The Wildcats have been injury-plagued the previous two campaigns, including losing quarterback Anu Solomon to a series of maladies for the first time two years ago, when UCLA last visited Arizona Stadium.

Brandon Dawkins is likely to be Arizona's quarterback this time around, with Solomon now at Baylor.

9. Nov. 11 vs. Arizona State

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Josh Rosen's season ended last October at Sun Devil Stadium. His removal from the lineup late sealed Arizona State's second consecutive victory over UCLA, and Sun Devils' third win in four tries against the Bruins. In two visits to the Rose Bowl under head coach Todd Graham, ASU is undefeated.

Should he make it through the season to this late juncture uninjured, this could be the quintessential game to illustrate the differences in UCLA with a healthy Rosen vs. one without him. Arizona State's passing defense has been the worst in the nation each of the last two seasons, but Rosen's shoulder prevented the Bruins from really attacking that weakness a season ago.

ASU could see improvements in that facet of its defense under new coordinator Phil Bennett, but the Sun Devils have a long way to go.

8. Sept. 16 at Memphis

College Football Rankings: Memphis Football

Former Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell returned to the Mid-South region where he grew up as head coach of the Memphis Tigers a season ago. Replacing Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente, who engineered one of college football's most remarkable turnarounds in his time at Memphis, left Norvell with a high standard to meet.

He did so admirably in Year 1, going 8-5. With a veteran lineup returning in 2017, Norvell's Tigers could reach a milestone never achieved in Fuente's tenure; they look like front-runners to win the West division in the American Athletic Conference, and perhaps contend for the Group of Five's automatic berth to a New Year's Six bowl.

UCLA's retooling secondary faces a stiff challenge against quarterback Riley Ferguson, who threw 32 touchdown passes in 2016. His top target, Anthony Miller, is one of the best wide receivers the Bruins will see all season.

7. Oct. 21 vs. Oregon

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

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After a two-year layoff in the series, UCLA gets an opportunity to snap its current six-game losing streak against Oregon. Despite the Ducks' slide to 4-8 a season ago, however, it won't be easy. First-year head coach Willie Taggart inherited a talented roster, including running back Royce Freeman. Freeman averaged 6.72 yards per carry for 121 total and two touchdowns against UCLA his freshman season.

The Bruins' defense must also contend with a new face, quarterback Justin Herbert. Herbert's breakthrough late in 2016 provided a bright spot in the Ducks' otherwise gloomy campaign.

The Ducks have the offensive firepower to draw UCLA into a shootout. Given Oregon's output of 42, 42, 49 and 60 points in the last four installments of the series, that's a style of play Mora would prefer his team avoid.

6. Sept. 3 vs. Texas A&M 

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Texas A&M

UCLA kicks off its pivotal 2017 season fittingly, hosting a rare SEC visit to Pac-12 country. Texas A&M returns its half of the home-and-home series, which saw the Aggies win in overtime last year in College Station.

UCLA nearly rallied from a series of early errors in that one, and the Bruins were driving for the win in the fourth quarter when Rosen threw a regulation-ending interception. This season's matchup marks Rosen's return from nearly 11 months on the shelf due to a shoulder injury, and best believe the quarterback will be looking to make up for lost time.

A&M's Sunday night visit to the Rose Bowl brings Noel Mazzone back to Pasadena. Mazzone was UCLA's offensive coordinator for four seasons, and last season helped the Aggies average a robust 34.8 points per game.

5. Sept. 30 vs. Colorado

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Each of the last three contests between UCLA and Colorado have gone down to the wire. In 2014, the Bruins survived in overtime to escape Boulder with a 40-37 win. In 2015, the Buffaloes had possession with a chance to win late at the Rose Bowl, but UCLA's defense rose up. Last year's 20-10 Colorado win was a sloppy, penalty-plagued affair, that came with the silver lining of first-round NFL draft pick Takkarist McKinley having his breakout on the national stage.

With McKinley gone, will another Bruin rise to the occasion in 2017? UCLA will need it to set a positive tone early in the Pac-12 season. Both the Bruins and Buffs enter this season somewhat overlooked in the Pac-12 South race, but with the necessary pieces to contend for a divisional crown. This game will go a long way in putting one of the two on the right track.

4. Nov. 3 at Utah

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The road team has won each of the last installments in this series, including UCLA wins at Rice-Eccles Stadium in both 2013 and '15. That bodes well for the Bruins in the coming campaign, but typically Utah's home stadium is one of the more difficult for visiting teams.

Rice-Eccles is always loud, making it difficult for quarterbacks to get plays called — as if Utah's stout defense needed any additional advantages. Add likely cold temperatures for this Friday night affair, and a low-scoring contest, reminiscent of UCLA's visit to Colorado a season ago, could be on the horizon. That's assuming these two teams don't replicate their 2016 meeting.

Utah won a 52-45 shootout in the Rose Bowl, relying almost exclusively on the run, while UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul attempted a program record 71 passes.

3. Sept. 23 at Stanford

Stanford has been a consistent thorn in the side of Jim Mora. Since arriving at UCLA in 2012, Mora's teams are 0-6 against the Cardinal, with some of the more noteworthy losses of the last half-decade. Included are the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game, which came down to a late field goal; Stanford's regular-season finale romp in the Rose Bowl to deny UCLA a conference title game bid in 2014; and Christian McCaffrey putting on a record-setting performance on national TV in '15.

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UCLA will again have its hands full on the Farm, though benefit from drawing the Cardinal early in the season. The offense will still be adjusting to the departure of McCaffrey, with Bryce Love now taking on primary ball-carrying duties. Quarterback Keller Chryst also will be fresh from returning from injury.

Nevertheless, David Shaw has a team once again ready to contend for the Pac-12 championship. If UCLA can beat it on the road, it's an indicator of the Bruins roaring back from last season stronger than ever.

2. Nov. 18 at USC

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

Following UCLA's blowout of USC in 2014, quarterback Brett Hundley declared there was no longer any doubt with program ran the Los Angeles college football scene. It was the Bruins' third straight win in the series, all coming by double digits.

The tide's turned once again, however, with USC claiming back-to-back lopsided victories. The Trojans enter 2017 with legitimate national championship buzz after their nine-game winning streak to close last season. USC's reversal of fortunes in the Crosstown Showdown contribute to the pressure on Mora to win this fall.

Slow finishes after fast starts have vexed UCLA each of the last two meetings with USC. The 2017 Trojans are much too talented for the Bruins to let off the gas. UCLA must also contain a multi-faceted offense more effectively than it did a season ago; quarterback Sam Darnold completed nearly 70 percent of his pass attempts against the Bruins, and running back Ronald Jones averaged better than 6.7 yards per carry. Both scored two touchdowns in the 36-14 Trojan romp.

1. Oct. 28 at Washington 

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Mora returned to his alma mater for the first time as a head coach in 2014, and it proved a triumphant homecoming. UCLA dispatched Washington, 44-30, handing the Huskies one of six losses suffered in Chris Petersen's first year as head coach.

That initial campaign was just the start for Washington under Petersen, however. He quickly rebuilt the longtime Pac pace-setters up to the lofty standards the program held in the 1990s. With Heisman Trophy contender Jake Browning back at quarterback, the two-headed monster in the backfield that is Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, and a stacked defense, Washington again looks to be a College Football Playoff contender.

Beating a team of this caliber in Husky Stadium is a daunting task. UCLA needs a near-perfect game on both sides of the ball in what should be the most difficult date on the 2017 calendar.

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