It gets easier, sure. UCLA has maybe the most difficult schedule in the country this year.
But there may be no time like the present for Jim Mora and the Bruins to fulfill some hefty expecations. Conference championship? Seems reasonable. College Football Playoff? Why not?
Here's the evidence: There's a strong corps of linebackers, including last year's freshman sensation Myles Jack. The secondary returns almost all of its starters. They've got talent and experinece on the offensive line, weapons at the skill positions, and maybe the next Heisman winner under center.
"We've got a difficult schedule, an exciting schedule," Mora said at Pac-12 media days. "A very challenging schedule that we're going to embrace fully. Lot of expectations out there as I've read for our team, but none of that matters. What matters are our expectations for ourselves."
Of course, for themselves, that expectation is high. That happens when you win 19 games in two seasons, and bring in three straight top-20 ranked recruiting classes.
Maybe no one UCLA player embodies the potential for UCLA quite like returning quarterback Brett Hundley, who is preparing for his third starting season in an offensive system that has made him a star. Big, athletic, and blessed with a strong arm, Hundley has thrown for more than 6,800 yards with 53 touchdowns during his career.
Some thought he might leave for the NFL last year, but he came back to help guide UCLA to a Pac-12 championship, which so far has escaped Mora's Bruins. They also wouldn't mind a win over Stanford after going 0-3 against the Cardinal in the last three years.
There's question marks for this team, especially in a defensive front that is looking to replace its pass rushing presence from last year. But UCLA is on a mission. Hundley didn't want to leave yet to fulfill that mission, and Mora certainly isn't going anywhere anytime soon, he said.
"I'm staying there until they kick me out," he said. "That might be tomorrow, who knows. I've been kicked out before. But I'm staying until they kick me out."
2013 IN REVIEW • 10-3, 6-3 in Pac-12, beat Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl
RETURNING STARTERS • 13 total (7 offense, 5 defense, 1 specialist)
TOP RETURNING PLAYER • No point dancing around it: Brett Hundley is the leader of the offense, a dynamic player who makes things happen with his arm but is also hard to bring down in the backfield or when he cuts to run. A Heisman candidate, Hundley shoulders much of the Bruins' hopes of making the College Football Playoff this year.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK • Can the Bruins stop the run? Replacing four of your front seven is never an easy task, especially when one of those players is Anthony Barr. While it helps UCLA to have Myles Jack playing linebacker full time now, the issue remains a pressing one. Even with Barr, the Bruins were No. 71 in run defense last year - not
SCHEDULE OUTLOOK • This one starts out with winnable games against Virginia and Memphis that aren't exactly cakewalks. Things really get interesting in Week 3, with a date in Texas, followed immediately by a grudge match with Arizona State that could well end up determining the South Division champ. One huge plus for UCLA is its biggest games are all in Pasadena: Oregon, USC and Stanford all have to play in the Rose Bowl this year. UCLA has some incredibly tough games to play, but the stage is set for the team to take its next step under Jim Mora: winning the conference.
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