UCLA Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Bruins' Schedule

One year after facing maybe the toughest slate in the nation, it gets no easier for the Bruins

Chip Kelly returned to the Pac-12 in 2018 following a one-year layoff from coaching in the NFL. Considering how daunting UCLA's schedule was in Kelly's first season, the Bruins might as well have been playing a professional slate.

 

UCLA faced an incredible four opponents that finished 2018 ranked in the Top 25, including a non-conference slate of College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma; as well as 11-win Cincinnati and Fresno State. The Bulldogs are off the docket, but Cincinnati and Oklahoma both return in the second half of home-and-home series.

 

The Bruins' conference schedule lightens up somewhat, at least on paper. Defending Pac-12 champion Washington is off, and so is likely preseason favorite Oregon. The road to bowl eligibility remains treacherous in Kelly's second year, however.

 

12. Oct. 5 vs. Oregon State

Cross-division play sees UCLA draw the Pac-12's last-place finisher in each of the previous two seasons. Oregon State's first visit to Pasadena since 2016 comes after a two-game road swing for the Bruins. This could be a make-or-break game for bowl purposes very early on the docket.

 

The Beavers showed tremendous offensive improvement in head coach Jonathan Smith's first season, with freshman running back Jermar Jefferson emerging as one of the surprise stories in the Pac-12 last season. But Smith has a lot more holes to fill before Oregon State's a road threat in conference play.

 

11. Nov. 2 vs. Colorado

A dismal first month under Kelly in 2018 ended with the Bruins playing their most promising half of football to that point at Colorado. A series of misfortunes doomed UCLA in the second half, but the strong opening quarters in Boulder provided a springboard to an intriguing final two months to Kelly's first season. UCLA finished 2018 with undeniably more momentum than Colorado, which fired head coach Mike MacIntyre and hired defensive guru Mel Tucker. The Buffaloes will be a new-look bunch as they come in pursuit of their first win at the Rose Bowl since joining the Pac-12 eight years ago.

 

10. Sept. 7 vs. San Diego State

Although San Diego State is coming off what was tied for its worst season in head coach Rocky Long's outstanding tenure, the Aztecs appearing at No. 10 is more a reflection of UCLA's brutal schedule than a knock on them. San Diego State should be improved from its seven-win 2018 finish and contend with Fresno State for the Mountain West Conference's West division title. The always-physical Aztecs will continue the hard-hitting, defensive-minded style UCLA sees a week earlier in the opener at Cincinnati.

 

9. Sept. 28 at Arizona

UCLA scored its only winning streak thus far in the Chip Kelly era last October when it survived a thrilling shootout with Arizona. The matchup in the Rose Bowl was one of the oddest in 2018, with Arizona playing sans quarterback Khalil Tate and UCLA losing Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the first half. Still, there were as many offensive fireworks as one could hope for in a game with Kelly and Kevin Sumlin on opposing sidelines. With some better luck on the injury report, the 2019 rematch could be another high-scoring nail-biter.

 

8. Nov. 30 vs. Cal

The worst start at UCLA in more than seven decades ended with a bang last season when Keisean Lucier-South led an absolute mollywhopping of Cal. The Golden Bears weren't nearly as bad in 2018 as the 37-7 final score that night indicated — which might give added incentive to this one at the end of the regular season. What's more, both teams may be playing for bowl eligibility, a scenario that set the scene for their last matchup at the Rose Bowl in 2017.

 

7. Oct. 26 vs. Arizona State

A furious comeback fell short for UCLA in its trip to Tempe last November. Eno Benjamin flirted with 200 rushing yards in the Sun Devils' win, and he's back for the UCLA defense to contend with once more in 2019. The Bruins get nine days between games ahead of this one, the result of drawing Stanford the previous week on a Thursday.

 

6. Nov. 23 at USC

Running back Joshua Kelley made history in 2018 to power UCLA to the indisputable high point of the campaign. The Bruins' win in the crosstown showdown brought the Victory Bell to Westwood for the first time since 2014, and set the tone for Kelly's place in the rivalry.

 

The loss marked a decided low point for USC in a trying 2018, begetting numerous changes in the offseason. Chief among them was the hiring of Graham Harrell (after the abortive hiring of Kliff Kingsbury) to oversee the offense. A revamped USC attack promises an added layer of intrigue to the showdown in 2019.

 

5. Aug. 29 at Cincinnati

Chip Kelly's return to the Pac-12 and a new era in UCLA football were both immediately dampened last September when Cincinnati won a defensive battle in the Rose Bowl. The victory began a march to 11 wins for Luke Fickell's Bearcats, who return in 2019 aiming for an American Athletic Conference championship.

 

The season opener gets the national spotlight with a Thursday kickoff. We should see quickly the strides UCLA has made in Kelly's second offseason, as well as Dorian Thompson-Robinson's maturation as a quarterback. The sophomore signal-caller will need an outstanding effort against one of college football's saltiest defenses.

 

4. Oct. 17 at Stanford

Stanford has been an absolute nightmare for UCLA the past decade. No opponent has manhandled the Bruins quite as effectively, delivering perhaps the most heartbreaking single loss, and some of the most lopsided defeats the program's faced in the 21st century. David Shaw faces a substantial retooling in some areas during the 2019 campaign, so the Cardinal's status as perennial Pac-12 contenders could be relatively clear one way or the other by this juncture in the season. If quarterback K.J. Costello is as good as expected — and as good as in last year's Cardinal shootout win at UCLA — the Stanford streak may extend another year.

 

3. Sept. 21 at Washington State

Two of the most innovative offensive minds in the last 20 years of college football meet for the first time since 2012 when UCLA treks to the Palouse. Things have changed considerably in that time, too: Chip Kelly's take on the hurry-up, spread offense had Oregon in national championship contention, while then-first-year Washington State head coach Mike Leach was trying to resurrect a long-dormant program. Leach has succeeded in that mission, winning at least nine games for the past four seasons running, and reaching a program-record 11 victories in 2018.

 

2. Nov. 16 at Utah

The 2018 campaign marked an important milestone in the impressive, recent history of Utah football. Winning the Pac-12 South ended a vexing drought for the Utes, and they did so while depleted for the final month. In fact, the last opponent to see Utah really at full strength in 2018 was UCLA — and the Bruins were on the wrong end of a thorough undressing.

 

With Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss both back in the lineup, Utah's offense should be the best its been since joining the Pac-12. The defense is always stout, and in 2019, boasts one of the best lines in the nation. Utah will be looking to solidify another Pac-12 title game appearance at this point in the campaign when UCLA visits raucous Rice-Eccles Stadium.

 

1. Sept. 14 vs. Oklahoma

Perennial national title contender Oklahoma transitioned seamlessly from legendary Bob Stoops to Lincoln Riley. The young Riley occupies the space Chip Kelly did previously in his tenure at Oregon as the most prominent face in college football's offensive evolution. Oklahoma puts points up in a hurry and will continue to do so despite losing a Heisman winner for a second consecutive season. Alabama transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts now leads a Sooners team picked to win yet another Big 12; UCLA is its last test before jumping into the league docket.

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

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