Saturday Out West Crystal Ball: Predicting every UCLA football game for 2022
Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: UCLA.
For now, the pitchforks are back in the barn and the torches are back in their sconces.
UCLA fans have a tentative detente with Chip Kelly after an eight-win season and an overhaul of a coaching staff that hadn’t made the most out of the Bruins’ talent.
Now comes the hard part.
Taking a fair amount of talent from an 8-win team and turning it into a 10-win team. The schedule lines up well for that: If UCLA doesn’t start the season 5-0, Kelly should be fired on the spot. The Bruins also have Utah and USC at home and their toughest road test is Oregon, which has owned them in recent years, though the gap has shortened.
Ten wins is a doable result from this level of returning talent. That would mean UCLA avoided the missteps that have plagued it in recent memory, and it would mean beating USC for a second straight year. If things really fall the Bruins’ way, they’ll contend for a Pac-12 championship and their first Rose Bowl bid since 1998.
Is 11 wins on the table? Get this: UCLA has never won 11 games. That’s astounding. Twice they reached the Rose Bowl with 10 wins — but lost. Could this be the year?
Take a look below to see how things stack up for the Bruins …
Can Dorian Thompson-Robinson take another step?
The long-established starting quarterback has made great strides since he assumed the starting position at the very beginning of his UCLA career. But can he take one more big step?
DTR has blossomed into a reliable passing threat, and his numbers last year were improved across the board and ultimately very good. Completing 62.2 percent of passes for 2,409 yards and 21 touchdowns with just 6 interceptions — that’s nothing to sneeze at.
But look at what Marcus Mariota did in 2014: 68.3 completion percentage, 4,454 yards, 10 yards per attempt, 42 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 181.7 rating. Plus 770 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
We’ve seen what an ideal quarterback can look like in a Chip Kelly offense.
If DTR can even split the difference — say 65 percent completion percentage, 3,200 yards, 32 touchdowns, 750 rushing yards and 10 more touchdowns — he’ll complete for Pac-12 first-team honors.
UCLA needs that kind of production to have the season it desires.
Does high school recruiting matter any more?
Los Angeles Times high school reporter Eric Sondheimer dropped an atomic bomb on Chip Kelly and the UCLA football staff on Saturday that has just about gone viral.
UCLA has basically collapsed in high school football recruiting. Focus has to be on transfer portal because the lack of success at the high school level in SoCal is pretty stunning.
— eric sondheimer (@latsondheimer) August 13, 2022
For a program that once recruited among the best teams in the country, it’s a stunning decline. But maybe not a surprise.
Here’s what Kelly told reporters on Aug. 9:
“Every year, you’re team-building and (asking) how do we put the best team together for this season? It’s a year-to-year deal the way it is now. It’s no longer, you’re bringing in 25 freshmen and we’ll redshirt them all and develop them and in 5 years from now, we’ll be good. Five years from now, you’re probably not going to be around. Everything is year to year. We don’t really look at it as recruiting any more. we look at it as team-building. So how do we build the best team for the 2022 season? It’s a combo of high school players and transfers. You can’t predict what the market is going to be like because you don’t know who’s going in the portal. … You just have to stay on top of it and be on top of them.”
The Bruins’ issues with high school recruiting under Kelly are nothing new. Here are the Bruins’ 247Sports high school recruiting rankings under Kelly:
- 2018: No. 19
- 2019: No. 40
- 2020: No. 33
- 2021: No. 32
- 2022: No. 61
For a team with as many natural recruiting advantages as UCLA, those are pretty stark numbers. Granted, UCLA’s 11 high school recruits in 2022 included 6 4-stars and 5 3-stars, ranking No. 3 in the conference in average rating. But what about depth? What about development?
“The days of, ‘Hey, let’s take a flyer on this kid, he may be developmental — hasn’t shown much, but he has height, weight and speed, we’ll just see if he pans out,’ — you’re not going to do that now because you could potentially not have a scholarship available for someone who could start for you next fall,” Kelly told reporters on Aug. 9.
So that’s where he’s at. Not sure it’s exactly what UCLA fans want to here, but it’s where Kelly’s head is at now.
Has UCLA solved its defensive issues?
Jettisoning Jerry Azzinaro alone was enough to laud Kelly, even if the decision came years too late.
But now new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern and a host of new assistants have to set to work on bad habits and bad practices. Can the Bruins turn it around in one year? They added some nice defensive pieces in the transfer portal — most prominently the Murphy twins, Gabriel and Grayson, from North Texas — and there is some solid returning talent.
But most importantly, the schemes have to improve. UCLA was willing to live by the run defense and die by the run defense last year, and while their defensive pass efficiency improved, the Bruins still allowed a ton of yards. Correcting that is mission No. 1 for this team. If they do, their best season in two-plus decades is in the offing.
Week 1: vs. Bowling Green (W)
The first of 3 pre-conference patsies for the Bruins, Bowling Green shouldn’t put up much of a fight. Anything less than a blowout will be a disappointment for the Bruins.
Week 2: vs. Alabama State (W)
UCLA matches up with an HBCU for the first time, a notable achievement for athletic director Martin Jarmond, one of a handful of Black ADs in college sports.
Week 3: vs. South Alabama (W)
The Bruins were supposed to have Michigan on the schedule, but instead, they cruise to their first undefeated nonconference slate since 2016. Big things are in store for the Bruins.
Week 4: at Colorado (W)
UCLA gets its first test, if you can call it that. Yes, the Buffaloes are a massive step up from the Bruins’ first 3 opponents. The Buffaloes have been a surprisingly strong out for the Bruins over the past 6 games, which they’ve split, 3-3. UCLA dominated last year at the Rose Bowl, 44-20, after Colorado won in Boulder in 2020, 48-42.
The Buffs don’t have the passing game, nor the pass defense, to keep this one close. The Bruins advance to 4-0 for the first time since 2015.
Week 5: vs. Washington (W)
It sounds a bit ridiculous, but could UCLA’s season-defining game really come in Week 5? Things have lined up beautifully for the Bruins so far, to the point where even 1 loss would sabotage their season. But the Huskies are a legitimate team with talent, even if they have big weaknesses on both sides of the ball.
After playing every season from 1993-2010, the Huskies and Bruins have only met in home-and-home, off-and-off cycles in the past dozen years. UCLA won in 2013-14, Washington won in 2017-18 and the Bruins won, 24-17, last season in Seattle.
If UCLA wins to move to 5-0, a 9- or 10-win season is likely.
Week 6: vs. Utah (L)
This is a tough one. I want to take UCLA, at home, on a roll, heading into a bye, expending all their energy against the defending conference champion.
But Kyle Whittingham’s disciplined defense has owned the Bruins since Utah joined the Pac-12. As I noted in my Utah Crystal Ball column, the Utes are 8-3 against the Bruins in their past 11 matchups, with 5 straight wins by an average margin of 27 points. Utah lines up well against UCLA, with a talented defensive front and a strong passing game up the seams. Do the Bruins have the defensive manpower to handle the Utes’ two all-conference tight ends?
In typical UCLA fashion, after bumping into the Top 25 with a win over Washington, the Bruins lose to Utah and fall out of the rankings once more.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: at Oregon (L)
The Ducks are 9-1 against the Bruins in their last 10 matchups, but the days of 60-13 (2010) and 42-14 (2013) appear over. The last two games in this matchup were decided by a field goal.
Last year, the Ducks shut down the UCLA running game, holding the Bruins to 110 yards, including just 35 yards on 15 carries by Zach Charbonnet, including a long run of just 7 yards. Oregon running back Travis Dye was similarly stifled — he had 35 yards on 14 carries — but he reached the end zone 4 times.
The Bruins have not won in Eugene since 2004, and even with an enviable passing game and a top-3 running game, Chip Kelly falls to his former employer once more.
UCLA falls to 5-2, but is staring at a potential 5-0 finish.
Week 9: vs. Stanford (W)
Stanford has long been a thorn in the side of the Bruins, winning 11 consecutive from 2009-2018. But UCLA seems to have found its rhythm against the bruising Cardinal, who haven’t been all that bruising the past few years.
In 2019, UCLA easily handled Stanford despite a down year, 34-16. A year later, the Bruins fell to the Cardinal in double-overtime, 48-47. Last year, the Bruins won 35-24, as Thompson-Robinson had 251 passing and 2 touchdowns to Kyle Phillips and added 2 rushing touchdowns.
With the rivalry returning to Pasadena and the Bruins returning DTR and Charbonnet, they continue their recent run of success and bounce back from two straight losses.
Week 10: at Arizona State (W)
Sometimes the measure of a team’s progress reveals itself in interesting ways. Of all the games on UCLA’s schedule this year, I actually believe this matchup will go the furthest in revealing the Bruins’ true colors.
Last year, Arizona State’s offense — which had relied heavily on Rachaad White and the running game — turned to the pass against the Bruins’ horrendous air defense. Jayden Daniels threw for 286 yards and 2 touchdowns, both to Ricky Pearsall, and the Sun Devils did what they wanted to do.
“They’re going to try to press you and get you in those long downs. So really the game plan was to get the ball in my hands, max protect and take shots and we did that,” Daniels said after the game.
This year, with a new defensive coordinator in Bill McGovern, who took over for the wholly ineffective Jerry Azzinaro, UCLA will finally get a sense of its defensive improvement or lack thereof. If ASU can rain it down on the Bruins without impediment, UCLA heads down another potential 8-4 finish. If the Bruins can stifle the Sun Devils new quarterback — presumed to be Florida transfer Emory Jones after Daniels transferred to LSU — they’d be headed to a 10-win season.
Week 11: vs. Arizona (W)
If this game were on the road and the Bruins been breaking in a new quarterback, I’d consider this a sneaky upset pick. The Bruins just have more top-end talent and they’ll be playing in the friendly confines, hoping to move to 8-2 for the first time since 2014. UCLA’s passing game will prove too much for the Wildcats’ still-raw defense, and the combo of Jayden de Laura and Jacob Cowing will have a day, but not enough to beat the Bruins.
At 8-2, they move into the top 20 for the first time this season.
Week 12: vs. USC (W)
Back in 2014, UCLA’s last year with Brett Hundley at the helm, the Bruins blitzed the 24th-ranked Trojans, 38-20, at the Rose Bowl. This is a much better USC team, but UCLA will have so much to play for at this point, and the Bruins will feel a bravado after beating the Trojans last season by their biggest margin since 1954.
That win was a defining moment for Kelly, and maybe the reason he’s still around Westwood. Fans were ready to move on last year after a barely acceptable 8-4 record. Resoundingly defeating the Trojans — no matter how down they were last year — helped Kelly ink a contract extension.
This is the year, though, that everything comes together. Yes, the losses to Utah and Oregon will still sting, but a win over a top 5-ranked and 9-1 USC team, and one that includes a harmonious defensive effort by the Bruins, will push UCLA over the top. And more importantly, into the top 10.
Week 13: at Cal (W)
A classic let-down opportunity for the Bruins, whose fans have suffered so many disappointments over the years. Only this time, finally, UCLA exorcises its demons.
The Bruins are heavily favored in ESPN’s Football Power Index, especially coming off a 42-14 rout of the Bears last year. Even on the road, UCLA will simply have too much to play for. Kelly is too good of a coach to let the Bruins let this one slip away.
2022 projection: 10-2 (7-2), T-2nd in Pac-12
The Bruins have more returning experience and talent than at any point in Kelly’s tenure. Last year, for the first time, we saw what it was like to combine Kelly’s creativity and acumen with an offense that had the pieces to let him feel uninhibited. The worst thing you can take away from a coach like Kelly is the sense of confidence that comes with complete command of the offense. Dorian Thompson-Robinson had to earn that trust from Kelly, and he has.
The question really comes down to this: Will the defense be improved enough for UCLA to contend for a Pac-12 title? For many Bruin followers, the sense is that Azzinaro was largely to blame for the defensive woes. Part of that was a byproduct of him not talking to the media for four years, so he couldn’t share his side of the story. For all of Kelly’s recruiting missteps and failures, his biggest mistake was stick with Azzinaro for so long.
That issue has been rectified. The Bruins have talent on both sides of the ball. They have their most favorable schedule in years, if not ever. Everything is lining up for a big year.