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UCLA Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on Their Schedule


UCLA knocked on the door of Pac-12 supremacy a few times in Jim Mora's six seasons as head coach, but never took that next step to a championship. In 2018 -- two decades removed from their last outright championship -- the Bruins welcome a head coach with three league titles since 2009.

UCLA Bruins LB Jaelan Phillips

And he hasn't even coached in the college ranks since 2012.

Chip Kelly returns to the Pac-12, where his wildly successful stint with the Oregon Ducks translated into NFL opportunities. After tenures with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, Kelly spent 2017 on the sidelines. He's back in 2018, diving in at UCLA against a formidable schedule.

12. Sept. 1 vs. Cincinnati

The difficulty of UCLA's schedule can be best described in its season opener. Although Cincinnati fell on hard times in recent seasons, the Bearcats could be good enough to go bowling in head coach Luke Fickell's second season -- and they are the clear choice for No. 12 on UCLA's docket.

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A new-look UCLA bunch could face resistance on opening weekend from a team returning more experience than Kelly inherits.

11. Sept. 15 vs. Fresno State

Next indicator of the challenge that is the 2018 UCLA schedule: No. 11 features a Fresno State team that snuck into the Top 25 ahead of last year's Championship Week, and came one possession away from winning the Mountain West Conference title.

College Football Rankings: Fresno State

Jeff Tedford returns an experienced lineup in his second season at Fresno State, capable of winning the MWC West division for a second consecutive season. The defensively stout Bulldogs also have the pieces to upset UCLA in this early season matchup at the Rose Bowl -- though it would be the first time a Tedford-coached team beat a Kelly-led squad. Cal went 0-4 in such matchups from 2009-12.

10. Sept. 28 at Colorado

You may be sensing a pattern here: Next up is a divisional contest the Bruins could very well lose. Colorado suffered a setback last season after its historic breakthrough to the Pac-12 Championship Game a year prior. However, despite missing the postseason, the Buffaloes came just seven points from reversing the order of its 5-7 finish.

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One of those narrow defeats was a four-point loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl. The added benefit of home field and the high elevation of Boulder could work in Colorado's favor against the hurry-up style for which Kelly's teams are known.

9. Oct. 20 vs. Arizona

Arizona's win last season ended a five-game winning streak for UCLA against the Wildcats. The Bruins get another crack at dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate, who this time is running the show for head coach Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin replaces Rich Rodriguez, whose offensive system was a spiritual successor to Kelly's groundbreaking attack at Oregon.

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The landscape of the Pac-12 South could be shaped in a profound way when these potentially potent offenses meet in the Rose Bowl.

8. Nov. 10 at Arizona State 

The 2018 Pac-12 South race features three different games pitting teams with first-year head coaches head-to-head. UCLA's visit to Arizona State late in the season is the second such matchup, and perhaps the most difficult to gauge.

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Arizona State is something of a wild card under Herm Edwards, though the same is true of UCLA with Kelly. The Sun Devils boast one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference, Manny Wilkins, who rushed for one score and passed for another in last season's nail-biting Bruins win at the Rose Bowl. UCLA's quarterback -- whomever that may be -- should be settled in at this juncture of the season.

7. Oct. 13 at Cal

The immediate defensive turnaround Cal enjoyed in Justin Wilcox's first season as head coach reshaped the Golden Bears' identity. That new-found physical style that made Cal a surprise spoiler in 2017 could have the Golden Bears primed for bigger things in 2018.

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UCLA draws this in-state matchup at an inopportune time, one week after hosting Washington. Given the physically imposing style the Bruins are sure to face against the Huskies, a body-blow factor could carry over to Berkeley.

6. Nov. 3 at Oregon

Mapping out the difficulty of UCLA's 2018 can be a cumbersome task, in large part because some of the more favorable matchups -- like the Bruins' late-season matchup with Oregon -- occur away from the Rose Bowl. UCLA snapped a losing skid to the Ducks last season in Pasadena (with Justin Herbert sidelined), which is sure to motivate the homestanding team.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

Meanwhile, the always rowdy Autzen Stadium faithful will be ready to "welcome" Kelly back to his old stomping grounds. With the Ducks looking like possible championship spoilers in the Pac-12 North, this could easily rank as a more difficult matchup for UCLA than some of the top five.

5. Oct. 26 vs. Utah

A short week to face what could be the team to beat in the Pac-12 South isn't exactly the ideal scenario for UCLA. If it's any consolation, this Friday night contest under the Rose Bowl lights is at home, and follows another home tilt in divisional play.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

Should UCLA's speed outduel the prowess of the methodical Utes, coupled with a defeat of Arizona the week prior, the Bruins could be in the driver's seat of the South heading into November.

4. Nov. 24 vs. Stanford

UCLA has not beaten Stanford since 2008. A season-ending loss to close 2018 would make it a complete decade. The Cardinal's physical style has caused problems for one Bruins team after another, making this matchup something of a white whale for the new staff in its first year.

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Getting Stanford at home could in theory help. UCLA will also be acclimated to its new system by this point. But after having a historically porous run-stopping unit a season ago, a late-season pairing with Bryce Love could be a tall order for the revamped defense.

3. Nov. 17 vs. USC

After UCLA's three-game winning streak in the crosstown rivalry from 2012-14, USC rolled off its own trio of victories in each of coach Clay Helton's matchups against the Bruins. The change in coaches up in Westwood makes for a new dynamic in the series.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

UCLA nearly stunned the Trojans at the Coliseum a season ago, but its inability to sustain drives proved costly. That was no issue the last time a Kelly-coached team saw USC; in 2012, Oregon's 62 points against the Trojans were the most allowed in program history, a mark that still stands today (along with a loss at Arizona State in 2013).

2. Oct. 6 vs. Washington

Washington is the best team UCLA will face in 2018, on paper. If there's any benefit in UCLA's favor against the Huskies, however, it's that the Bruins get them at home, and with one extra day of rest. The previous week's game at Colorado falls on a Friday.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Washington

Washington storms into 2018 the favorite in the Pac-12, but not invulnerable. The Huskies dropped a surprising decision in Pac-12 South territory around this same time on the calendar to Arizona State last season. UCLA will look to make its mark in similar fashion against the 2018 Huskies; an upset that would not only shock the nation, but also emphasize Kelly's return to prominence in the conference.

1. Sept. 8 at Oklahoma

The 2018 Oklahoma Sooners will look different from the version that opened this year falling one possession shy of the national championship game. Still, second-year head coach Lincoln Riley inherited the infrastructure to achieve greatness year-after-year. Oklahoma performs at the level to which UCLA aspires. A Bruins win in Norman would send shockwaves throughout college football, and lay an immediate foundation for the program to begin building to that elite level.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oklahoma

However, this ranks No. 1 because of the dire possibility that exists. An ugly UCLA loss -- like the 59-24 beatdown the Sooners put on the Bruins in their last visit to Norman 15 years ago -- could position this team for a long slog through a demanding schedule.

Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast: Games. Games. And more Games!

-- 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.