In less than 100 days, UCLA will begin its most anticipated football season in awhile. For the first time in what seems like awhile, multiple players on this UCLA team have been tabbed as preseason All-Americans—in Brett Hundley, Anthony Barr and Xavier Su'a-Filo—while the squad possesses two bona fide Heisman candidates in Barr and Hundley.
All of this is a result of a wildly successful 2012 season, a campaign that saw the Bruins win nine games, the first time the program has won more than seven games in a season since 2005 (an abberation year during the oft-maligned Karl Dorrell era).
Of course, that 2012 squad—while successful relative to UCLA's success in the 2000s—was frustrating at times, and was nowhere near flawless. As Jim Mora likes to point out, it was a good season, but far from a great one.
But what is it exactly that UCLA did poorly in that needs improvement if this team is going to take a step further this season? Without trying to define what is considered a "next step," what are obvious deficiencies this team dealt with last year that need to be addressed so that they don't handicap their 2013 counterparts? Let's discuss that now.
1. Sacks Allowed
Statistically, UCLA ranked as the sixth-worst team in sacks allowed per game; in fact, on nine percent of drop-backs, QB Brett Hundley found himself eating grass.
To call UCLA's offensive line last season "frustrating" is generous. At times, the group—anchored by Xavier Su'a-Filo, a 2013 preseason All-American—looked brilliant, sometimes for entire games, but more often than not, the kids in the trenches looked rather incompetent and clueless. Perhaps this is a result of a young group (Jake Brendel and Simon Goines were freshmen, and Xavier Su'a-Filo was a sophomore playing football for the first time since coming back from his two-year mission), but there's no guarantee that this line simply gets better by aging.
Furthermore, the group's role will be exponentionally more important than in 2012.
Running back Johnathan Franklin made up for his line's deficiencies with creative moves in tiny spaces, while using his strength to gain extra yards after first contact. Franklin, a Doaks Award finalist, won't be back and the team will have to rely on running backs who are largely inexperienced. It's likely that none become an every-down back for the Bruins in 2013, meaning UCLA's offensive line can no longer afford to be total crap like it was in various games last year.
And don't forget: Brett Hundley is still the quarterback, and the more times he gets put to the floor, the higher the chances are that he is injured in the process. With UCLA's quarterback curse seeming like a real thing most times in the past ten years, it's crucial that Hundley stays healthy.
2. Turnover Margin
This stat wasn't so bad in 2012. The Bruins had a positive turnover margin in 2012, earning an average turnover margin of +0.5 per contest.
Driving this turnover margin was UCLA's takeaways per game last year, earning 2.3 a tilt, good for top-20 in the country. The implication here is that giveaways are a problem for UCLA, and while 1.8 per game ranks a mediocre (but not terrible) 70th in the country, that number's going to need to go down significantly.
Especially if this UCLA team is going to rely on turnovers so much. As Jim Mora's noted multiple times this offseason, the Bruins' defensive philosophy will center around takeaways, an aggressive mindset that could damn UCLA or bring them to prominence. If this team isn't going to care about the amount of yards they allow—Mora's words, not mine—then it will need to improve on earning takeaways at least marginally and limiting turnovers significantly.
This is the most obvious of the three, and ironically, it was the least debilitating. UCLA seemed content with earning a large amount of flags and this rarely limited their ability to win games. (The one occasion that comes to mind is the painful, ever-maddening Pac-12 title game against Stanford, a false start penalty, that killed a potential scoring drive for the Bruins; thanks, Jeff Baca).
Of course, limiting this might be partially out of their control, because the referees in the Pac-12 call games notoriously tight. Indeed, seven of the 20 most penalized teams in the country came from the Pac-12, and three of the five most penalized teams in the nation came from the conference. Still, much of the Bruins' failures in averting flags was due to the offensive line, which is perhaps a function of the aforementioned youth of the group.
While the penalties put UCLA into tough situations, they overcame them, but relying on the offense to work well consistently with a handicap isn't what you'd expect from a team that's vying for a BCS bowl game.