Saturday Out West Crystal Ball: Predicting every UCLA football game for 2023
Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: UCLA.
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It’s hard to remember the last time so much unrealized potential was put on the shoulders of a true freshman quarterback. What’s going on at UCLA is not Trevor Lawrence or Bryce Young, powerhouse talents going to powerhouse programs to keep the engine running at lightning speed.
This is a true watershed moment for the Bruins and Chip Kelly, as the program has clearly turned the corner after a sluggish beginning of the Kelly Era, coming off 8-4 and 9-4 campaigns after a 10-21 start.
Or, at least, it can be that everything-comes-together year.
UCLA has a soft schedule, returns a star-studded defense, with a pair of candidates for Pac-12 defensive player of the year in EDGE Laiatu Latu and linebacker Darius Muasau, got some major skill position transfers and brought in perhaps its best quarterback recruit in program history. If Dante Moore has a Lawrence-like impact on the offense, an 11-1 or 10-2 record is in arm’s reach. If he’s great but not epic, 8 or 9 wins is on the agenda. If he plays like most true freshman QBs but up to his talent level, at least 7 wins is the bare minimum.
But the potential so much greater.
Is Dante Moore the man?
Ethan Garbers is a fine QB, and his floor as a junior with some backup experience is decent. Kent State transfer Collin Schlee has starting experience, but wasn’t overwhelming. Both floors may be higher than Moore’s floor as a true freshman in Week 1. But Moore has no ceiling. His impact on UCLA truly could be immeasurable.
Kelly hasn’t had a talent like this guiding his offense since…ever. Marcus Mariota was a 3-star recruit with 2 legit offers; Dorian Thompson-Robinson was a 4-star recruit.
Moore was the No. 3 QB in the Class of 2023 behind Texas’ Arch Manning and Tennessee’s Nico Iamaleava, and the No. 5 recruit overall. Standing 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Moore led Detroit King to a 10-3 record and a 2nd straight Michigan Division III state championship after completing 175-of-252 passes (69.4%) for 2,392 yards, 32 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
With a cupcake schedule that sees UCLA miss both Oregon and Washington this season, anything short of 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns would be underwhelming.
Can the UCLA defense finally stand up?
Forget elite. Is this the year UCLA is finally good?
This is a truly startling statistic: The Bruins have not finished in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense since George Bush was in office. George H. W. Bush, that is. The father. The 1991 UCLA defense allowed 15.8 points per game, No. 19 overall. Since then, the unit has many 100-or-worse finishes than top 30 scoring defenses.
Given the sheer talent in Westwood over the last few decades — guys like Kenny Clark and Datone Jones, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, Bruce Davis and Dave Ball — that is actually astounding. But with the majority of its experience returning on the defensive side of the ball for the first time in years, including Latu, Mausau and the Murphy twins, Gabriel and Grayson, as well as newcomers at quarterback running back and No. 1 wideout, UCLA may have a defensive identity for the first time in years.
It’s on first-time defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn to pull it all together.
Will Laiatu Latu dominate the conference?
The last time UCLA had a pass rusher returning with Latu’s kind of numbers, Anthony Barr played himself into a top 10 pick. Back-to-back double-digit sack totals will do that for you.
Latu is back after a year in which he registered 12.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks, ranking 8th in the nation and 2nd in the Pac-12 with a 0.81 sacks per game. And this was in Latu’s first season back from a neck injury that led team doctors at his original school, Washington, to recommend he never play again.
With an eye on the Pac-12 sack title and All-American status, Latu should be a favorite for DPOY honors.
Week 1: vs. Coastal Carolina (W)
This is a good season-opening test for the Bruins, as the Chanticleers have gone to the postseason 3 years running. Given the state of UCLA’s quarterback competition roughly 2 weeks away from season kickoff, the only thing that feels certain is a win. I’m going with Garbers getting the first snaps, Moore getting extended time and Schlee maybe seeing a series or two.
Week 2: at San Diego State (W)
Now this is a test. Maybe not a final, but at least an early unannounced pop quiz. The Aztecs are generally considered a 2nd-tier Mountain West team, 3rd or 4th in the conference. Compared to last year’s UCLA non-conference schedule, it’s a step up, but not generally imposing.
Of course, the last time they met, SDSU won 23-14, snapping a 21-1-0 UCLA streak.
This will be the game that determines the future of the Bruins’ quarterback position. And for these purposes, that future is Moore.
Week 3: vs. North Carolina Central (W)
Given a buffer before Pac-12 begins with his first start against FCS opponent and HBCU North Carolina Central, Moore turns on the jets. The Bruins win by at least 30 points to kick off the Moore era.
Week 4: at Utah (L)
Then reality bites back. It was smart to give Moore both the tune-up start and the real thing, but it won’t be pretty. Assuming Cam Rising is back at the helm for the Utes, Moore crumbles against one of the conference’s top defense. Utah’s Cole Bishop and Junior Tafuna introduce Moore to Pac-12 football, or at least what’s left of it. Of course, this all hinges on Rising’s availability. If he misses the early part of the season still rounding into form from a torn ACL suffered in the Rose Bowl, all bets are off.
Week 5: Bye
Week 6: vs. Washington State (W)
The last time these teams met was nothing short of one of the wildest wins in UCLA history. The 0-3 Bruins came back from a 32-point 3rd quarter deficit to down the No. 19 Cougars, 67-63. They scored 50 points in the 2nd half alone! That was the world’s introduction to Thompson-Robinson, who had 507 yards and 5 scores while Anthony Gordon had 570 and a school-record 9 touchdowns.
This feels like the right time for Moore to make his first big splash, too. Washington State’s defense returns just 50 percent of its production from year ago, and while the Cougars have some talented individual pieces, UCLA will hold strong behind Moore’s first 350-yard game.
Week 7: at Oregon State (L)
Joy, it is ever fleeting.
UCLA has a pair of winnable games against Wazzu and Stanford sandwiching a real tough one in Corvallis. Much like the QB situation in Utah, Oregon State’s fortunes will be determined by its quarterback. Only injury is not the question, but instead D.J. Uiagalelei living up to his potential. I like the Beavers in a home game either way, but I’m expecting big things out of DJU this year.
Week 8: at Stanford (W)
UCLA gets back in the win column for the first of 2 consecutive weeks before hitting the wall. The Cardinal are breaking in a new scheme under 1st-year head coach Troy Taylor, who takes over for David Shaw. Shaw’s absence — as well as myriad questions all over the field — leaves Stanford in a state of flux. With realignment worries threatening to extend until after season kickoff, I’m expecting the Cardinal to be distracted all year long.
Week 9: vs. Colorado (W)
This may be Coach Prime’s lone visit to the Rose Bowl, and what fun it should be. You think UCLA’s got questions? Colorado is a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma. What Deion Sanders is doing in Boulder is unprecedented, and all eyes are on the Buffaloes across the country. It’s true anarchy. But we’ll know plenty about this experiment by Week 9, and more importantly, Colorado will know a lot more about itself. Anything you thought you knew about Colorado, toss it out the window.
Week 10: at Arizona (L)
Now we get to make-or-break time, and years of watching UCLA underachieve relative to its talent has me jaded and rigid. Sorry, Bruins, here is where the wheels come off, and in the weirdest of ways. Even with DTR and Charbonnet in the fold last year, the Wildcats upset UCLA in Tucson, 34-28. This year, with Jayden de Laura and the Cats vying for a first bowl game for Jedd Fisch, they’ll hold serve at home.
Week 11: vs. Arizona State (L)
This is one of my upset specials of the year. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Bruins a 74.9 percent chance to win, though that model favors returning production, and ASU has little of that and a ton of transfers. I’m pegging UCLA to get caught looking ahead to their cross-town rivals in Week 12. Count on Kenny Dillingham pulling out all the stops against Kelly.
Week 12: at USC (L)
After one of the most thrilling games in the long, historic rivalry, UCLA will struggle to keep it close at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Last year, DTR’s late-game magic ran out as the Trojans won, 48-45. Despite a big game for Steele, Caleb Williams and Dorian Singer will combine for 120 yards and a pair of scores as the Bruins fall to the precipice of .500.
Week 13: vs. Cal (W)
Moore and the Bruins bounce back to salvage a decent enough debut season for Moore and an above-average send off for the Big Ten. UCLA has won 3 straight and 8 of 10 in the rivalry to take a 57-34-1 all-time edge. Cal has an unstable quarterback position, as well, but the Bruins have vastly more talent on both sides of the ball.
2023 Projection: 7-5 (4-5)
I am by nature conservative in my predictions, and I am particularly bad at projecting freshman quarterback play. There are 3 options for Moore and the UCLA offense: good, great, exceptional. Seven wins, 9 wins, 11 wins.
With its best returning defense in years and a retooled offense, the Bruins have a chance to be special — but only if Moore is.