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Why UCLA Will (or Won't) Win the Pac-12 Championship in 2016

Josh Rosen

Josh Rosen

Since Jim Mora's arrival as head coach in 2012, UCLA has lingered achingly close to the Pac-12 title.

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The Bruins appeared in the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game and came a last-minute field goal away from forcing overtime. In 2013, a stalled, final drive against Arizona State denied UCLA a return to the championship. The Bruins' 2014 pursuit ended with a final-week upset loss to Stanford.

Last season marked the first notable regression of the Mora era, with the Bruins failing to win at least nine games for the first time. Any number of factors could have contributed to UCLA's tumble: the early-season loss of Myles Jack to a knee injury, starting a true freshman at quarterback, inconsistency on both sides of the ball.

Expect a bounce-back in 2016. A multitude of key players return, some taking on new roles thanks to philosophical changes implemented by Mora's staff. The forecast for the 2016 season is very much reminiscent of Los Angeles for 300-plus days per year, calling for sunny skies in the form of a No. 15 ranking the Athlon Preseason Top 25, best among the Pac-12 South.

That means, if all goes according to plan, the Bruins will return to the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Why UCLA Will Win the Pac-12 in 2016

Josh Rosen debuted at quarterback about as spectacularly as a true freshman can last year. Despite some inevitable growing pains, Rosen put together an impressive first season with 23 touchdowns and 3,670 yards passing. He also set a UCLA record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception (245). 

A new offensive philosophy, implemented by new coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, accentuates Rosen's greatest strengths. With more snaps from under center, a tighter offensive line formation and increased use of tight ends and fullbacks, the sophomore should flourish in Year 2.

Related: Ranking the Pac-12's Quarterbacks for 2016

As much as Rosen benefits from a tweaked scheme, sophomore running Soso Jamabo could break out even more. The second-year power-back scored four touchdowns and averaged 6.1 yards per carry for 416 in total, playing a complementary role to Paul Perkins.

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Mora said after spring practices concluded in April that Jamabo was growing into his role as the primary back nicely. 

UCLA's defense builds around one of the deepest secondaries in all of college football. So rich are the Bruins in that phase, former cornerback Ishmael Adams moved to wide receiver this spring to help out on that side of the ball. UCLA can easily weather the loss with a bevy of talent returning: Tahaan Goodman, Jaleel Wadood, Denzel Fisher, John Johnson, Randall Goforth. All are potential difference-makers on the back line.

The Bruins also feature some pop on the line, thanks to the returning Eddie Vanderdoes. The former 5-star recruit missed much of 2015 due to injury, but is back in the fold in the middle. Complementing him on the outside is the talented Takkarist McKinley, one of the Pac-12's leading candidates for a breakout season.

Why UCLA Won’t Win the Pac-12 in 2016

The inevitable peril of recruiting and cultivating NFL talent, which UCLA has done exceedingly well even before Mora's arrival? Losing and replacing NFL talent.

While Jack's injury last September gave the Bruins an unfortunate head start in preparing for life without him, UCLA no longer has tackle Kenny Clark plugging the middle defensively. Clark developed into one of, if not the best run-stopping interior defenders in the nation.

Even with Clark, last year's UCLA run defense ranked 98th in the nation, surrendering just under 200 yards per game. Take him away, and coordinator Tom Bradley has work to do to prepare UCLA for the bevy of ground-based attacks his defense will see in 2016.

Conversely, the passing game is the question mark on the other side of the ball. While Rosen's skill set is better suited to Polamalu's scheme than the system Noel Mazzone employed a season ago, the quarterback must find reliable targets.

With the departures of Jordan Payton, Thomas Duarte and Devin Fuller, UCLA loses 60 percent of its total receiving production in 2015. That's to say nothing of leading rusher Perkins, who also was a constant threat as a pass catcher.

The emergence of new weapons proves just as paramount to the success of UCLA's offense as any improvements Rosen makes from Year 1 to Year 2.

UCLA's road back to the Pac-12 Championship Game also ranks among the more difficult in the league. The Bruins travel to Texas A&M and BYU early on in the non-conference, then draw Arizona State, Stanford and Washington State in the first half of league play. All three beat the Bruins a season ago.

— 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