Outside expectations on UCLA football are not as high entering 2015 as they were a season ago. That's rather ironic, given the Bruins return a much more veteran lineup, particularly in areas that were question marks a season ago.
Nevertheless, head coach Jim Mora is probably just fine with flying somewhat under the national radar. He has arguably his best team since arriving at UCLA in 2012 — and that's saying something, given the Bruins have won 29 games over the last three seasons.
A promising 2015 campaign opens Saturday at the Rose Bowl with an opponent UCLA knows all-too-well can pose real problems. Despite a three-year bowl drought, the Virginia Cavaliers play an aggressive defensive style that very nearly derailed the Bruins' 2014 season in Week 1.
Virginia at UCLA
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: UCLA -19.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Josh Rosen's College Debut
Months of speculation came to a head last week, when UCLA head coach Jim Mora named 5-star freshman quarterback Josh Rosen the starter for Week 1. Rosen replaces three-year starter Brett Hundley, the only starting quarterback Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone have known in their time at UCLA.
Aside from his lack of collegiate experience, the true freshman Rosen is a different style quarterback than his predecessor. Hundley was an excellent scrambler, whereas Rosen is renowned for his pocket presence. How much adjustment is required from the rest of the Bruin offense will be explained pretty quickly against a Virginia defense that blitzes frequently.
Mora noted that the Cavaliers succeeded in pressuring Hundley a season ago, adding: "And he was a three-year starter."
To deal with the blitz, expect the Bruins to rely on the Pac-12's leading rusher, Paul Perkins. Perkins should see a steady workload, particularly early.
2. Who Makes Big Plays in Ishmael Adams' Place?
Ishmael Adams' indefinite suspension for an alleged robbery leaves two sizable holes the Bruins must patch. The first is in the secondary, which is one of the nation's best with Adams in the lineup. The Bruins get back talented Randall Goforth, who joins veteran Fabian Moreau and sophomore Jaleel Wadood, who broke out late last season.
Without Adams, however, UCLA needs someone to step up to deliver game-changing plays. Adams had a keen knack for just that, including against Virginia last August when he took an interception for a touchdown. Moreau has been seeking his breakout since coming to UCLA. With Adams out of the lineup, Moreau will be looked upon to step up as the team's shutdown corner.
Also look for new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, a linebackers guru, to get the most from the talented one-two punch of Myles Jack and Deon Hollins. With Hollins bringing pressure off the edge, Jack is more than capable of dropping back into pass coverage to make plays there.
There is no shortage of answers on defense, but Adams' absence extends to special teams. Last season, he functioned as the primary kickoff returner, and the sole punt returner. His 100-yard run-back against Arizona State snapped a seven-year special teams touchdown drought for the Bruins.
3. Coming Up Roses at Home
The Rose Bowl is arguably the most picturesque venue in college football, and a record number of fans visited it for UCLA home games in 2014. Still, the beautiful venue in Pasadena was too often a house of horrors for the Bruins.
All three of UCLA's losses were at home, including the regular-season finale blowout against Stanford that kept the Bruins out of the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Defending the home turf is vital to UCLA's Pac-12 title aspirations in 2015. Setting the right tone in Week 1 is crucial.
Growing pains may be evident for the Bruin offense early, particularly against a stout Virginia defense. Perkins having solidified himself as a reliable No. 1 running back does help, and is something UCLA lacked a season ago in its visit to Charlottesville. It was only in the second half of that contest that Mora and Mazzone turned to him.
Playing a more conservative style on offense while establishing its authority on defense promises UCLA will be locked in a close contest through the first half. However, as Virginia fails to mount drives on a stout Bruin defense, look for the flood gates to open in the third or fourth quarter as UCLA wins a war of attrition.