Rarely does college football afford teams a mulligan. UCLA opening its 2017 season with the same opponent that kicked off a 4–8 2016 campaign is about as close to a mulligan as one can expect to see.
The Bruins visited Texas A&M on Week 1 last year, rallied from a two-score deficit in the fourth quarter, only to lose in overtime. The heartbreaking loss set the tone for UCLA's worst season since 2008, and easily the low point of Jim Mora's tenure as head coach.
Drawing the Aggies once again offers UCLA a do-over of sorts — both as a team, and for quarterback Josh Rosen, making his return from a shoulder injury that sidelined him much of last season.
Rosen threw an interception on the Bruins' final drive against A&M last season with UCLA threatening near midfield. He'll get a chance to lead the home team to a win, but it won't come easy. Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies invade the Rose Bowl with talent on both sides of the ball and their own wrongs from a season ago to right.
Texas A&M at UCLA
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: UCLA -3.5
1. Rosen's Redemption Story
Josh Rosen made his collegiate debut in the Rose Bowl two seasons ago, and generated instant Heisman Trophy buzz. Touted as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, Rosen met the hype at points in his freshman campaign. Even before the injury that sidelined him as a sophomore, Rosen's production was not in line with expectations.
He was completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes, and after setting a record for consecutive attempts without an interception in 2015, went down for the season with five picks to just 10 touchdowns.
Rosen's return on Sunday marks the first opportunity to get back to the heights reached at various times in his debut campaign. Doing so against the stout Texas A&M pass rush will be a challenge, however.
2. The A&M Quarterback Situation
While Rosen will garner much of the spotlight on Sunday, perhaps the more intriguing quarterback situation is that which is unfolding at Texas A&M.
Sumlin went into the week having not yet named a starter, though news of Nick Starkel likely getting the nod surfaced on Wednesday. Starkel won a three-man race that may not be over. Before Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight won the job in 2016, Texas A&M played musical chairs in the years since Johnny Manziel's departure.
The last two Week 1 starters before Knight, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen, transferred out of the program. Starkel's play early against a UCLA defense loaded with talent but relatively light on game experience could provide a glimpse into the outlook for the Aggies' season.
3. Run Game Blues
UCLA's reason for changing offensive coordinators from Kennedy Polamalu to Jedd Fisch is best summarized by the Bruins' dismal No. 127 ranking in rushing offense last season. A complete inability to establish a ground attack hampered UCLA throughout the season, even before Rosen's shoulder injury.
Establishing a more consistent run game is paramount for UCLA to succeed. In contrast, Texas A&M — which wasn't terrible against the rush last season, allowing 4.4 yards per carry — seeks to fill the void All-America end Myles Garrett's departure leaves up front.
UCLA and Texas A&M meet with mirroring identities in 2017. Head coaches Sumlin and Mora both need bounce-back seasons after falling short of expectations in 2016.
Both teams have plenty of talent, but considerable holes to fill with the departure of first-round NFL talent like Garrett and Takkarist McKinley. The lingering question marks from a season ago remain. One, if not both, could disapponit in 2017 as a result — but a win Sunday is an important springboard into the campaign.
The mirroring situations and the more urgent than usual stakes should make for one of the most hotly contested Week 1 games on the calendar.