Saturday, August 30, 9 AM p.m. (PST)
The Sports Network
GAME NOTES: The much-anticipated 2014 season gets underway for the UCLA Bruins as Jim Mora's squad opens the season on the road against the Virginia Cavaliers.
The Bruins open the campaign ranked seventh in the nation after going 10-3 a year ago in Mora's second season at the helm. UCLA opened with five straight wins, but failed to remain in the conference hunt, dropping three Pac-12 tilts to nationally ranked foes in Stanford (24-10), Oregon (42-14) and Arizona State (38-33). Still, the Bruins closed the regular season with a big win over rival USC (35-14) and destroyed Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl (42-12) to reach double-digit victories.
While UCLA's star is on the rise, Virginia's Mike London is sitting on one of the hottest seats in the country. The Cavaliers have failed to make significant progress under London, whose fourth year in Charlottesville, was his worst, with the team managing a mere 2-10 record. Those two wins came early on against BYU (19-16) and VMI (49-0), but the Cavs did not reach the win column again in 2013, closing the year with nine straight losses and a winless 0-8 ACC mark.
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two teams.
The UCLA offense comes down to one player, All-American candidate Brett Hundley. The junior signal caller has certainly caught the eye of the NFL with his unique skill set. He is coming off a 2013 in which he threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 748 yards and an additional 11 scores.
At receiver, Jordan Payton and Devin Fuller are reliable. Fuller had 471 yards and 4 scores on 43 catches last season, while Payton contributed 440 yards on 38 grabs.
Running back Jordon James (534 yards, 5 TDs) missed five games due to injury, but had a strong start, posting 100-yard games in the first three weeks. Paul Perkins (573 yards, 6 TDs) is another option and of course, the incredibly gifted Myles Jack (267 yards, 7 TDs) could get a smattering of carries, although he will be more important as a linebacker for the defense.
UCLA has a chance to dominate on both sides of the ball thanks to a slew of returning talent on defense.
The area of greatest strength is at linebacker, which is fitting considering new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich coached that position the previous two seasons.
Jack is supremely gifted. He was stellar on defense before being asked to try his hand at running back. Despite playing on both sides, Jack still finished fifth on the team in tackles (75), including 7 for loss. He also showed his versatility by collecting a pair of interceptions and a team-high 11 pass breakups. Jack should be a serious Butkus Award candidate in 2014. Eric Kendricks (106 tackles, 2.0 sacks) led the team in stops and is a tackling machine. The duo makes for an easy transition from the loss of All- American Anthony Barr (10 sacks). Highly-touted freshman Zach Whitley makes the unit that much stronger.
The secondary is led by a trio of big-time playmakers in cornerback Ishmael Adams (61 tackles, 4 INTs) and safeties Anthony Jefferson (89 tackles, 2 INTs) and Randal Goforth (78 tackles, 3 INTs).
Despite the preseason hype, Mora wants to keep his team grounded and focused on the task at hand.
"Our success right now, in my opinion, is still very limited. We haven't won the Pac-12 Championship. We're 0-3 against Stanford," Mora said. "I don't want our players to feel like we're extra special and we've accomplished the goals we've set out to accomplish or that we're on the right track."
With seven starters returning on the offensive side of the football, improving on last year's numbers is likely for the Cavaliers. Virginia's top offensive weapon last year was tailback Kevin Parks, who rushed for 1,031 yards and 11 touchdowns. He returns after earning second-team All-ACC honors in 2013.
The quarterback position has some depth with junior David Watford (6-2, 205) and sophomore Greyson Lambert (6-5, 225). In his first season as a starter, Watford completed just over 57 percent of his passes, for 2,202 yards and eight TDs. Lambert played sparingly, but had a strong spring and has moved into the top spot for the job as the season is set to begin.
"Lambert is representative of what a player should be," London said. "I'm not saying anything against David, because David, again, is a young man that's very bright and very much a part of this team's success. But Greyson has taken the reins, and he's gone full steam ahead with them."
Senior wideout Darius Jennings (5-11, 175) is the top returning receiver after grabbing 38 balls, for 340 yards and three TDs last year. Parks (38 receptions, 329 yards, one TD) is also a capable pass catcher coming out of the backfield.
The Cavaliers are even more experienced on the defensive side of things, with nine starters returning. The best of the group is All-American safety Anthony Harris (6-1, 190), who is among the best at his position in the country. Harris racked up 80 tackles in 2013 and led the nation in interceptions with eight. Harris will be joined in the secondary by fellow senior Brandon Phelps (44 tackles).
The linebacking corps is well represented with the team's top two tacklers from last year returning in seniors Henry Coley (91 tackles, 9.0 TFL, one sack) and Daquan Romero (89 tackles, 6.5 TFL).
Up front, junior rush end Eli Harold is the centerpiece. As a sophomore in 2013, the 6-4, 235-pounder racked up 15 TFL and 8.5 sacks to pace the team in both categories.
Virginia played Pac-12 powerhouse Oregon last year and was no match for the Ducks (49-0). A similar fate could be awaiting the Cavaliers against a UCLA squad primed for a big season.