By at least one measure, UCLA has the toughest schedule in college football. Saturday’s 9 a.m. season opener against Virginia isn’t responsible for much of that weight.
Coming off a 2-10 season that ranks as the program’s worst in 15 years, the Cavaliers are 21-point underdogs against a team that more and more national pundits are starting to pick as the national champion. Do they have a chance to keep up?
UCLA offense vs. Virginia defense:
If Virginia has any hope of pulling the upset, it must look to its defense — now entering its second season under defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and his blitz-heavy scheme. Nine starters return, including All-American safety Anthony Harris, who led the country last year with eight interceptions.
“He has extreme ball skills,” said UCLA receiver Jordan Payton. “He plays physical. He plays in coverage. … Now, you’re looking at a guy who almost plays like a receiver at safety. You definitely have to play the ball more and be a little more aggressive coming back to the ball.”
Five-star recruit Quin Blanding earned his starting spot as soon as training camp started. Before that, his promising talent helped convince Harris to stay for one more season. However, veteran cornerback Demetrious Nicholson is still battling turf toe and wasn’t listed on the team’s depth chart on Monday. He tied the ACC lead with 15 pass breakups, but lost most of last season to injury.
The defense also has a couple of playmakers in defensive end Eli Harold and linebacker Henry Coley — 25 combined tackles for loss last season — but it’s not an overly intimidating front.
Still, it’d be worrisome for a national title contender to have significant trouble with a defense that ranked dead last in points allowed (33.3) in the ACC — arguably the weakest of the five major conferences. Even if UCLA’s offensive line isn’t at full strength, it’s hard to imagine Brett Hundley and company not finding holes across the field. When they last faced an ACC team in Virginia Tech, they shredded what was then ranked the nation’s No. 3 passing defense in a 42-12 Sun Bowl win.
UCLA defense vs. Virginia offense:
Virginia’s main weapon is running back Kevin Parks, a 5-foot-8 senior who is eighth on the program’s all-time rushing list and seeking back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Former five-star prospect Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell could break out after being limited by a high ankle sprain his freshman year, while senior Khalek Shepherd returns after a 304-yard, 51-carry season.
“They’re extremely patient running backs,” said UCLA defensive end Owa Odighizuwa. “They really read their blocks and their keys before they push up field.”
Odighizuwa and the rest of the Bruins’ deep and talented front seven should have a field day with Virginia’s offensive line, which only has 32 combined career starts. Jay Whitmire — the Cavaliers’ projected starter at left tackle — is still out with a back injury, while backup Sadiq Olanrewaju hurt his leg earlier this month.
That’s bad news for new starting quarterback Greyson Lambert. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, the redshirt sophomore has the strength to heave it a bit, but had a very uneven season last year behind now-backup David Watford. Lambert was 33-of-75 for 340 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions — though he did have a 13-of-19 showing for 134 yards against Miami.
UCLA players have said all week that they’re also preparing to see a dual-threat quarterback in Watford, but all indications out of Charlottesville are that Virginia will lean on Lambert.
“He stays in the pocket, likes to pass,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said of Lambert. “He looks downfield, is always keeping his eyes downfield even when he’s outside the pocket, which is always a threat. Sometimes when quarterbacks get outside of the pocket, you tend to try and chase them down — but if you don’t keep your eyes downfield, they can make a throw.”
If he does get time to air it down field, Lambert will still have to contend with a secondary that returns every starter, including lockdown corner Fabian Moreau. Virginia doesn’t have a returning receiver who had more than 340 yards in 2013.
Alec Vozenilek punted 85 times as a junior last season — more than anyone else in the country except Wake Forest’s Alexander Kinal. That he was needed that many times is as indicative of Virginia’s awful performance last season as anything else. Vozenilek also took over placekicking duties after 6-foot-6 (!) kicker Ian Frye, who suffered a season-ending injury after four games.
Frye is only 6-of-9 on career field goal attempts, but he did nail a 53-yarder last season in a 19-16 win against BYU.
UCLA’s punt and kick return coverage units were top-30 nationally last season, and most of the key performers return. The main transition there is to new special teams coordinator Mike Tuiasosopo, though plenty of other assistants are pitching in to help out.
Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn is still money from 40 yards in, though still unproven as a consistent leg from farther out. Junior college transfer Matt Mengel didn’t blow away anyone in training camp, but will likely start over walk-on Adam Searl. The Bruins also have a dangerous returner in cornerback Ishmael Adams.
Prediction: Virginia’s defense keeps the game close for about a quarter, until Brett Hundley finds his rhythm on the ground and through the air. UCLA’s defense gets three sacks against a patchworked offensive line. UCLA, 41-14.