Bruins, Buffaloes kick their seasons off in Boulder
As Week 10 of the college football season gets underway, the Pac-12 begins its planned seven-game 2020 schedule. With a short race to the championship game finish line, the UCLA Bruins travel to take on the Colorado Buffaloes with both teams hoping for a fast start towards shocking the conference with an invite to Allegiant Stadium on Dec. 18.
Year Three of the rebuilding process in Westwood starts in familiar territory, with offensive coordinator Justin Frye and defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro by head coach Chip Kelly's side, carrying a roster filled with underclassmen. The Bruins got off to a slow start a year ago with a 1-5 record, but a midseason uptick that included a 31-14 Rose Bowl win over Colorado had fans brimming with optimism. Ending the schedule on a three-game losing streak and missing a bowl game for a second consecutive season brings a hot seat to Kelly on the Bruins' sidelines in 2020.
Mel Tucker's first season in Boulder sparked a fervor among the Buffaloes fanbase with early-season wins over ranked Nebraska and Arizona State squads, but in the end, the team posted a third straight 5-7 season. Tucker took the open Michigan State posting and left an opportunity for a familiar name among UCLA circles, former Bruins coach Karl Dorrell. Dorrell spent five seasons in Los Angeles (2003-07) before spending the last 11 in the NFL with a one-year sidebar as offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt (2014). Now two keen offensive football minds get to matchup on Saturday.
UCLA at Colorado
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: UCLA -6
When UCLA Has the Ball
UCLA's offense is driven by the success of dual-threat Dorian Thompson-Robinson. With more passing opportunities, Thompson showed improvement last season, passing for 2,701 yards with 21 touchdowns, but he killed momentum with 12 interceptions. In fact, he threw a pick in all but two UCLA games last season. There is no secret formula to his success in terms of passing attempts, passing yards, or completion percentage. But his task to help an offensive line with three starters back is to get rid of the ball quicker. Thompson was dropped in every game last season, six times against Cal.
One positive for the Bruins last season was the rushing attack led by Joshua Kelley. Kelley (now with the Chargers) and his 1,060 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground are gone, but Demetric Felton is back. Kelley was bigger than Felton. Time will tell if Felton can shoulder 15-to-20 carries per game or if he will thrive more as a change-of-pace option getting plays in space. The Bruins rushing attack would have sterling numbers if not for Thompson's loss yards on sacks. When Thompson wants to run, he can be electric and a chain mover with four rushing scores.
When Dorrell took over in Boulder, he kept defensive coordinator Tyson Summers. Statistically speaking, Colorado was on the bottom rung nationally and in-conference in all major categories, including scoring defense (31.8) and yards allowed (441.9). What could turn this group around is experience. The box returns six in the team's 3-4 alignment. The secondary is experienced, even if young. Linebacker Nate Landman is the unquestioned leader of this unit, a linebacker's linebacker with 113 stops last season.
When Colorado Has the Ball
Ideas of what the Buffaloes may look like on offense are circulating, a spread with tempo focused on the passing game, but how that offense looks is the great unknown for now. A year ago, the offense did an adequate job of moving the ball rushing for 150.3 per game while slinging it for 238.2. Dorrell has the pedigree to make this group go, but does he have the talent to execute it properly? The released depth chart has senior quarterback-turned-safety-and-back-to-quarterback-again Sam Noyer as the starter with junior Tyler Lytle as his backup.
The Buffaloes were forced to make a change under center with the graduation of Steven Montez, but whoever is driving the offense has keys to work with at the skill positions. Laviska Shenault Jr. will be missed, but receivers K.D. Nixon and Dimitri Stanley return. Nixon should thrive as the go-to guy with Shenault in the NFL. The offense will rely heavily on the all-purpose nature of running back Alex Fontenot. Fontenot covered 874 yards on the ground with five touchdowns and was a check-down option out of the backfield, securing 27 passes for 122 yards.
The Bruins' defense was bad last season, allowing 34.8 points per game, and especially struggled against the pass (310.8 ypg). With three starters back and a roster lined with juniors and sophomores, hopes are high, but a repeat of an up-and-down season trying to stop the ball should be expected.
As Pac-12 matchups go, this one should be interesting for the fans. Both squads have the potential to be explosive on offense with plenty of playmakers. How well the young lines hold up against the pressure, especially UCLA's, will be the difference. Colorado's defense has the chance to be a solid unit in 2020 if the offense can help by sustaining drives and putting points on the board.
Dorrell is an offensive sage, but will he push his agenda or set the offense up for simple success early without the benefit of spring practices? Colorado should have a chance to win this one, but UCLA has more continuity heading to Boulder.
Prediction: UCLA 31, Colorado 24
Podcast: Week 10 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.