UCLA Bruins (4-8 in 2010, 2-7 Pac-10) at Houston Cougars (5-7 in 2010, 4-4 Conference USA)
Kickoff: Saturday, September 3rd, 2:30 PM Central
Line: Houston by 3
All-Time Series: Houston 2 wins, UCLA 3 wins (UCLA won most recent meeting, 31-13 in 2010)
Houston entered last year's match-up against the Bruins with a 2-0 record and a top 25 ranking, fresh off a 54-24 thumping of a UTEP team that always seemed to give the Cougars trouble. Life was good.
A few short hours later, the Cougars were bruised and bloodied, their star quarterback (and his back-up) injured, their dream season up in smoke, their top 25 ranking a thing of the past. Houston was dominated by UCLA's offensive line, surrendering run yards in bunches, and the Coogs' famed offensive was impotent against the Bruin D.
While Bruin head coach Rick Neuheisel is (barely) still holding onto his job, there are new coordinators on both sides of the ball for UCLA, although the game plan doesn't figure to be much different - run the ball down Houston's throat on offense, dominate the line on defense and make Houston's offense predictable.
Here are our three burning questions that will determine whether or not this year's game will play out any differently than a year ago:
Does the Houston defensive front seven have enough size to slow down the UCLA running game?
The Cougars lose 15th-year senior linebacker Matt Nicholson and one-year rental defensive tackle Matangi Tonga from last year's front seven, with defensive linemen Zeke Riser (missed '10 with ACL injury) and Radermon Scypion questionable due to injuries, but the rest of those units return to Houston's 3-4 defense. Added to the mix are junior college transfer nose tackle Dominic Smith, JC linebackers Everett Daniels and Lloyd Allen, redshirt freshmen D-linemen Eric Braswell and Austin Lunsford, and true freshman linebacker Derrick Matthews. True freshman Joey Mbu (listed at 6'3", 320 lb) may also make an appearance. Despite the loss of Tonga and Nicholson, the front seven looks bigger and more experienced.
They'll be up against a UCLA offensive line that suffers the loss of three full-time starters due to graduation, another potential starter (Stan Hasiak) to grades, and another potential starter (Jeff Baca) to injuries. Still, the Bruins manage three seniors with starting experience, and enough size that Sumlin called the UCLA line the "largest group of human beings we'll face all year".
On paper, I think the Cougars can match up with the UCLA offensive line, but I won't really believe it until I see it.
Will the Bruins manage any sort of passing game to complement the ground game?
Neuheisel held off as long as possible on naming a starting quarterback for the season-opener, before naming Kevin Prince the starter over fellow junior Richard Brehaut. (Neuheisel went on to say that Brehaut would also see the field.)
Last year, UCLA needed only 99 passing yards to control the game on offense, but if Houston is able to stack the box and slow down the run game, will the Bruins be able to take to the air?
It sets up as an interesting match-up of "experienced, but ineffective" vs "talented, but inexperienced". UCLA has basically everybody back in the passing game, but it's a passing game that accomplished very little last year. (As a reference, Houston had four receivers in 2010 with more receiving yards than UCLA's team leader.)
On the other side of the ball, there has been a lot of positive talk about the talent in the Cougar secondary, but the UH starters figure to be a sophomore with only limited reserve experience and a JC transfer at the corners, a JC transfer at free safety, and two rotating sophomores (one a transfer in his first year with the program) at strong safety.
So who wins out - UCLA's experience, or Houston's young talent? I'm not sure, but if the outcome of the game comes down to this match-up, the Cougars will have to be happy that the rest of the game is playing out that way.
What will the Cougar offense do differently this time around?
Not having to face the trio of NFL-bound Bruin graduates they went up against a year ago will certainly help, as will the return of quicksilver back Charles Sims. But will the Cougar offensive line - minus three starters from a year ago, replacing them with three sophomores - be able to open up enough holes for Sims, Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes? (The latter two combined for just 68 yards on 23 carries a year ago.) The Bruins still have enough talent in the secondary that, if the front seven can stuff the run again without really having to load up the box, they'll be able to slow down the Cougar passing attack again.
The UCLA front seven will likely be the largest that Houston faces all year, too, so it's fresh out of fall practice and into the fire for the Coogs' underclassmen O-linemen. If Houston can put together a balanced offensive attack against the Bruins, it'll be a great sign for the rest of the year.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, as much as I'd like to believe that Houston's line play will be greatly improved over a year ago, I just can't buy in until I see it in action. So I'm picking UCLA 34, Houston 31. Hopefully by Sunday, you'll all be criticizing me for my lack of faith.