College football’s Week 1 slate is filled with compelling matchups, and while UCLA-Texas A&M might not have the same pregame hype as Alabama-USC or Houston-Oklahoma, there’s a lot of intrigue surrounding this game. This matchup is also a rare non-conference meeting between the Pac-12 and SEC and features two of college football’s top players in UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen and Texas A&M end Myles Garrett.
Kevin Sumlin has guided Texas A&M to 36 victories in four seasons on the job, but there’s a lot of pressure to show this program is headed in the right direction this fall. The Aggies closed 2015 by losing their last two games and have failed to record a winning mark in SEC play in each of the last three years. In addition to the on-field concerns, Texas A&M’s top quarterbacks (Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray) transferred prior to the Music City Bowl, and the program received some bad publicity in the offseason after the suspension of assistants Jeff Banks and Jim Turner for remarks and graphics displayed ruing a women’s clinic in late July. Needless to say, an 8-4 or 9-3 season would help quiet some of the hot seat talk around Sumlin.
UCLA coach Jim Mora isn’t on the hot seat like Sumlin, but there’s no shortage of pressure entering his fifth year at the helm. The Bruins are picked by many preseason prognosticators as the favorite in the Pac-12 South and are hungry to erase last year’s late-season struggles. UCLA lost three out of its last four games, including a 40-21 matchup against rival USC and a 39-27 defeat in the Foster Farms Bowl against Nebraska. Under Mora’s watch, the Bruins have won at least eight games in each of the last four years but never finished better than 6-3 in Pac-12 action.
Texas A&M and UCLA have met four previous times, with the all-time series tied at two victories apiece. The Bruins and Aggies have not met since 1997 season (1998 Cotton Bowl).
UCLA at Texas A&M
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Texas A&M -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Trevor Knight vs. Josh Rosen
The marriage between Knight and Texas A&M should be a good one-year solution for the Aggies’ quarterback problems that developed after the transfers of Murray and Allen. Knight threw for 3,424 yards and 25 scores, while rushing for 853 yards and eight touchdowns in 24 career appearances at Oklahoma. As a graduate transfer, Knight was able to enroll in time for spring practice and gained valuable reps with the supporting cast. The senior should be a good fit in new coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense (hired from UCLA), as the veteran play-caller can take advantage of Knight’s mobility and utilize quick or short passes to get the ball to playmakers in space. On the other sideline, UCLA sophomore Josh Rosen is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and is a future first-round draft pick. Rosen threw for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns as a true freshman last season and is only going to improve as a sophomore. Additionally, the Bruins are building an offense around Rosen, adding more pro-style looks under new play-caller Kennedy Polamalu for 2016. The matchup of Rosen – arguably one of the most-talented pure passers in the nation – against Knight (a graduate transfer looking to close out his career on a high note) is one of Week 1’s top quarterback matchups to watch.
2. Texas A&M’s Wide Receivers vs. UCLA’s Secondary
It’s strength versus strength when Texas A&M’s receivers go head-to-head against UCLA’s secondary. The Aggies have assembled a deep group of playmakers, headlined by dynamic sophomore Christian Kirk, senior Josh Reynolds and junior Ricky Seals-Jones. UCLA returns three starters and regains the services of starting cornerback Fabian Moreau (missed nearly all of 2015 due to injury) in the secondary. This unit could be the best secondary in the Pac-12 after limiting opponents to a 57.1 completion percentage in 2015. Safeties Randall Goforth and Jaleel Wadood earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season, while cornerback Marcus Rios was an honorable mention selection after breaking up seven passes in 13 games. UCLA’s secondary will also have help from its defensive line, as standout junior Eddie Vanderdoes is back from a season-ending knee injury. Vanderdoes and fellow lineman Takkarist McKinley should provide their share of headaches for a Texas A&M offensive line that surrendered 37 sacks last fall. Can UCLA’s secondary win the one-on-one battles and force Knight to hold the ball longer in the pocket? Or will the Aggies big-play threats at receiver win the one-on-one matchups and allow Knight plenty of open targets?
3. UCLA’s Offensive Line
The pregame spotlight for this matchup is centered directly on Josh Rosen, but the Bruins’ victory hopes are likely to come down to how the offensive line performs. Anchored by junior end Myles Garrett (12.5 sacks in 2015), Texas A&M’s defensive front is one of the best in the nation. In addition to Garrett, the Aggies also return Daeshon Hall (seven sacks) on the other side, while rising star Daylon Mack helps to anchor the interior. Generating a pass rush wasn’t a problem for this group last year, but coordinator John Chavis wants to see this unit stop the run better in 2016. UCLA’s offensive line allowed the fewest (14) sacks among Pac-12 teams in 2015 but lost three starters. Left tackle Conor McDermott is one of the nation’s top linemen, and junior Kenny Lacy has started 12 games over the last two years. Additionally, junior Scott Quessenberry returns to the lineup after missing 2015 due to injury, while sophomore Kolton Miller and Poasi Moala round out the starting five. This group has good size and a combination of potential and experience. Can this unit prevent Garrett and Hall from pressuring Rosen? And can this group clear the way for running backs Soso Jamabo and Nate Starks?
This is a tough game to get a read on and one of Week 1’s most even matchups. UCLA has the overall edge at quarterback and in the secondary, but the Bruins will be tested up front and with a new group of receivers for Rosen. A win over UCLA should quiet some of the hot seat talk around Sumlin, and in order for that to happen, the Aggies need a flawless effort from Knight and a consistent pass rush from Hall and Garrett. Look for this game to be in doubt deep into the fourth quarter, but Texas A&M’s homefield edge is enough to swing this game in the Aggies’ direction.