Positive trajectory in Chip Kelly's first season could carry into Year 2, but a tough schedule awaits
Arguably the most brutal schedule in college football highlighted the first season of the Chip Kelly era at UCLA. The Bruins faced three non-conference opponents that won at least 11 games — Cincinnati, Fresno State and Oklahoma — and all finished ranked in the final AP Top 25.
The early-season gauntlet resulted in a historic losing streak to kick off the campaign, but the Bruins finished Kelly's debut with Pac-12 wins over Cal, Arizona and USC; and near-misses against quality opponents like Washington, Arizona State and Stanford.
UCLA's 2019 slate again includes Cincinnati and Oklahoma, as well as perennial Mountain West Conference contender San Diego State. The Bruins avoid Washington and Oregon in cross-divisional play in the Pac-12, so at least on paper, this docket appears to be less of a murderer's row than 2018. But only slightly.
Byes: Week 7, Week 11
Week 1 — Thursday, Aug. 29 at Cincinnati (Cincinnati)
Kelly's debut with the Bruins was spoiled when a Cincinnati team picked to finish near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference won a defensive battle. Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell rode this style to an 11-2 finish, the program's best since the 2009 campaign. Cincinnati's No. 8-ranked scoring defense loses some key pieces but should be aggressive and physical once again. That's a tough first challenge for an offense retooling its line and replacing a vital weapon in tight end Caleb Wilson.
Week 2 — Sept. 7 vs. San Diego State (Pasadena, Calif.)
San Diego State head coach Rocky Long spent time at UCLA as a defensive coordinator in the mid-1990s. He returns more than two decades later, having cultivated a defensive style that's one of the most innovative and, still today, most effective in college football.
The Aztecs' 3-3-5 odd-stack has been integral to their winning 11 games in three of the previous four seasons. San Diego State took a step back in 2018, enduring a losing skid on the back-half of the schedule, but it should recharge for a MWC West push in 2019.
Week 3 — Sept. 14 vs. Oklahoma (Pasadena, Calif.)
After two weeks facing smash-mouth defenses, the tone shifts for UCLA in Week 3 when one of the most consistently explosive offenses visits the Rose Bowl. Fresh off a run to the College Football Playoff last season, Oklahoma reloads with Alabama transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts — a name frequently bounced around as a prospective addition to UCLA's 2019 roster.
Hurts follows back-to-back Heisman winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, the latter of whom torched UCLA for five total touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) a season ago. Hurts will aim to replicate the success of his predecessors in head coach Lincoln Riley's system. Riley has overtaken the mantle Kelly once held as college football's most ballyhooed offensive mind.
Week 4 — Sept. 21 at Washington State (Pullman, Wash.)
Ah, yes: UCLA football playing an opponent that won 11 games in 2018. That's just the theme for the Bruins. While Oregon and Washington are missing from the 2019 slate, a trip to the Pac-12's most remote outpost to face an 11-game winner of a season ago awaits instead.
Washington State coach Mike Leach's teams gave Kelly's Oregon successor Mike Helfrich fits for years. The Cougars' Air Raid offensive scheme is a nightmare matchup, even for a secondary as loaded as UCLA's with Darnay Holmes, Quentin Lake and Elijah Gates. However, it's the tenacious defense overseen by Tracy Claeys that makes Washington State a top-to-bottom tough matchup.
Week 5 — Sept. 28 at Arizona (Tucson, Ariz.)
UCLA responded to a five-year losing streak against Arizona (2007-11) with a five-game winning streak of its own (2012-16). The programs since exchanged wins, with UCLA surviving an entertaining contest last October at the Rose Bowl.
Wilton Speight stepped up big after replacing an injured Dorian Thompson-Robinson early in the contest. Speight's gone, and Arizona should have quarterback Khalil Tate in the lineup this time around. It didn't last season when Rhett Rodriguez played a surprisingly effective game for the Wildcats in a losing effort.
Week 6 — Oct. 5 vs. Oregon State (Pasadena, Calif.)
UCLA's rush defense proved to be one of its greatest liabilities in 2018. In what might otherwise look like the most favorable matchup, the Bruins' run-stopping woes loom large. Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson was a revelation for the rebuilding program, as the then-freshman produced 1,380 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns in coach Jonathan Smith's first season with the Beavers.
Week 8 — Thursday, Oct. 17 at Stanford (Stanford, Calif.)
There has been no other challenge more foreboding for UCLA in the last decade than Stanford. Last year's meeting on Thanksgiving weekend, however, may be the catalyst for the Bruins finally turning the tide after 11 straight losses. UCLA went back and forth with the Cardinal in a 49-42 shootout that showed the first significant signs of Kelly's potent offensive lineage taking root with the Bruins.
Week 9 — Oct. 26 vs. Arizona State (Pasadena, Calif.)
Recent matchups in this series have been closely contested, like last year's 31-28 UCLA loss in Tempe. A 44-37 win the last time the Sun Devils visited the Rose Bowl proved vital to landing the 2017 Bruins in a bowl game.
Expect nothing different this season. The Pac-12 South appears wide open in 2019, outside of front-runner Utah. This final contest before the home stretch could have both ASU and UCLA jockeying for positioning. The Sun Devils will have a much different offensive look in Year 2 under coach Herm Edwards, losing quarterback Manny Wilkins and wide receiver N'Keal Harry, but Pac-12-leading rusher Eno Benjamin returns.
Week 10 — Nov. 2 vs. Colorado (Pasadena, Calif.)
UCLA's visit to the Rocky Mountains a season ago became the Laviska Shenault Jr. Show. Colorado's do-everything wide receiver, who returns in 2019, powered a second-half deluge to deny UCLA its first win of the season.
Colorado's never beaten UCLA at the Rose Bowl since joining the Pac-12. This year's visit marks the Buffaloes' first with Mel Tucker as head coach.
Week 12 — Nov. 16 at Utah (Salt Lake City, Utah)
From Joe Williams' record-setting performance in 2016 to Utah's blowout wins in each of the last two seasons, the Utes have taken firm control of this series in recent years. UCLA's last win came at this same juncture of the season, and at Rice-Eccles Stadium, in 2015.
Prior to last year's breakthrough as divisional champs, that 2015 squad was Utah's best. Winning the division sets a new standard for Utah, however. And with a bevy of talented playmakers on both sides of the ball returning, Utah should be playing for a repeat trip to Santa Clara in this season's matchup.
Week 13 — Nov. 23 at USC (Los Angeles)
Running back Joshua Kelley wrote his name on the rich history of the UCLA-USC rivalry last year, setting a series rushing record en route to a Bruins win. UCLA's win was the clear, defining moment of Chip Kelly's first season with the Bruins. It helped deny USC a bowl bid, returned the Victory Bell to Westwood for the first time since 2014, and demonstrated UCLA's positive trajectory in an otherwise trying season.
Week 14 — Nov. 30 vs. Cal (Pasadena, Calif.)
UCLA's excruciating losing streak to open the 2018 season ended emphatically when the Bruins decimated Cal in Berkeley last October. Linebacker Keisean Lucier-South was a one-man wrecking crew in the win; he's back in 2019 to power UCLA's defense.
Despite the lopsided loss, Cal overachieved in 2018 and returns a talented defense. Both these teams could be playing for bowl positioning when Thanksgiving weekend rolls around.