Posted on July 8, 2021
Each preview is comprised of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.
Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.
Chip Kelly enters his fourth season in Westwood with a record of 10-21 and three consecutive losing seasons. Despite having arguably a Top 3 quarterback in the Conference, Kelly has yet to put it together.
But after several seasons of treading water on the recruiting trail, momentum has turned. The Bruins’ Class of 2021 is ranked 4th in the Pac-12 and includes three 4-Star recruits to go along with five former 4-Star transfers, adding depth to a roster that returns 19 starters.
And in an indication of the potential of this year’s squad, all five offensive linemen are back on a team that scored 35.4 points per game with the nation’s 12th-best rushing attack.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson has deadly options in tight end Greg Dulcich and wideout Kyle Philips, while Brittain Brown returns in the backfield and is supplemented by Michigan transfer Zack Charbonnet.
There’s not many reasons to doubt UCLA’s ability to score points.
But with a defense that’s allowed 33.2 points per game in the Kelly Era, there must be improvement on that side of the ball if the Bruins are to secure their first winning season since 2015.
DTR stays healthy behind an experienced offensive line that produces an even more successful run game than last season.
Brown and Charbonnet’s one-two punch lays the groundwork for the senior quarterback to find Dulcich and Philips over the top, while simultaneously opening holes for Thompson-Robinson to take advantage of himself.
The strength up front leads to DTR’s most efficient season of his career, securing UCLA’s first bowl appearance in four years.
On defense, USC transfer Jay Toia contributes early and often, while freshmen 4-Star defensive linemen Quintin Somerville and Tiaoalii Savea crack the rotation. With 10 starters returning, the unit has its strongest season since Kelly took the job.
Worst Case Scenario
Injuries nag Thompson-Robinson periodically throughout the year, contributing to another season of poor decision-making in the passing game. Interceptions abound in pivotal drives, squandering the threat of arguably the best tight end in the Pac-12.
But more damagingly, Brown and Charbonnet are unable to match the production of last year’s potent rushing attack. The stunted run game throws a wrench into Kelly’s entire gameplan, putting undue pressure on his defense to step up to the plate.
And although the defense plays better than expected, the inefficiency in the UCLA backfield holds back a team seemingly destined for a bowl game.
What Should Happen
The Bruin offensive line guides one of the nation’s top run games.
Led by two featured backs, DTR exponentially frustrates opposing coordinators by gashing opponents for first downs. The three explosive threats on the ground force defenses to overcompensate, opening up the field for the Bruin receivers to make plays.
The result is Kelly’s most potent offense since coming to Westwood.
And on the back of a defense that returns all but one starter, UCLA reaches a bowl game and emerges with a win.
What Must Happen
The issues on defense date back several seasons to the tail-end of the Jim Mora Era.
Since the end of the 2015 season, the unit has given up 30 points or more per game, and has surrendered 40 points or more in 19 contests.
Such systemic and consistent failures are arguably the reason for the lack of success in Westwood over the past six years.
Fixing those problems have been a continual and ongoing struggle that Kelly has yet to solve, and until he does so, it’s unlikely that the program will return to its potential.
Yet, his defense generated nine interceptions in seven games last year, while producing 11 total turnovers. If production like that continues into the 2021 season, the Bruin defense might exceed expectations for the first time in half a decade.
When on top of his game, Dorian Thompson-Robinson is one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12. At times throughout his career, poor decision making has led to interceptions, but his leadership, skill, and willingness to run the ball sets him above most of the quarterbacks in the Conference.
And with Dulcich, Philips, and Chase Cota to pass to, the entire offense is capable of putting up enough points to topple any opponent the Bruins face.
Despite the departure of Demetric Felton, the UCLA backfield should shine behind its offensive line. Without any glaring weaknesses, the entire Bruin offense should take another step forward in 2021.
With an offense set to do damage, the causes for concern are almost entirely focused on defense.
Nearly the entire unit returns from a roster that gave up its fewest points per game in three seasons. But Defensive Coordinator Jerry Azzinaro’s system gave up more than 500 total yards in two of the seven games played in 2020. And in three of UCLA’s four losses, his squad allowed 40 points or more.
Shoring up the pass defense figures to be the key.
Opponents never had worse than a 50% completion rate against the 4-2-5 scheme, and the non-traditional set gave up an average of 12.2 first downs through the air per game.
On the other hand, in all but two games, Azzinaro’s unit held its opponent to just one touchdown on the ground.
Norte Dame transfer Jordan Genmark Heath and North Texas transfer Cameron Johnson have been brought in to help, while freshman safety Josh Moore could find his way onto the field.
But Stephan Blaylock and Qwuantrezz Knight can’t do it on their own, and the pair need a third and fourth player in the secondary to emerge.
All four of UCLA’s defeats last year came by a touchdown or less. In those four losses, the Bruins lost the turnover battle in all but one.
With a 12-to-6 ratio in the defeats, being careless with the ball arguably cost the Bruins those games.All seven of UCLA’s fumbles came in the contests it lost, providing a clear catalyst to which Kelly and his staff can point.
In contrast, the Bruins committed one combined turnover in the three games it won. It’s clear what needs to change.
If the Bruins do a better job of taking care of the ball, particularly by limiting fumbles, they may find themselves winning those close games they lost last season.
A Week 0 match against Hawaii in Pasadena kicks off the campaign. In years past, this might be a closer contest than some expect. But with Nick Rolovich now at Washington State and momentum building in Westwood, a double-digit victory is expected.
LSU comes to L.A. the following week in what could be an embarrassing defeat at home. If UCLA keeps the game respectable, it may be a springboard to a winning season.
After a bye week, Fresno State caps off the nonconference slate at the Rose Bowl. A 2-1 record prior to Pac-12 play begins is a clear expectation.
A road game at Stanford starts the conference season, followed by a battle with ASU in Pasadena. The matchup with the Tree could be a toss-up, and the fight with the Sun Devils has upset potential. Emerging with a split is a legitimate expectation.
A trip to Tucson precedes the toughest stretch of the year. After facing the Wildcats, UCLA travels to Washington and Utah, with a showdown in Pasadena against Oregon in between. If UCLA manages to get more than one win during this stretch, it will be better than many expect.
A rematch against Colorado is followed by the USC game, while the year is closed out against California. Although the matchup with the Trojans figures to be tough, the Bruins should find a way to win at home against the Buffs and Bears.
At the end of the year, a six-win season and bowl appearance should be in the cards for Kelly and DTR. And with the firepower to get it done, UCLA should end the year with a bowl victory and winning season.
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