Philadelphia, PA – 10 Conference, but after three seasons that has not been the case.
After winning seven games in 2009, the Bruins took a major step in the wrong direction last year, as the team tallied just four victories.
The losses came right out of the gate for UCLA, as the team dropped its first two contests, falling to Kansas State (31-22) and Stanford (35-0). The Bruins quickly turned the tables on the early portion of their season, as they clobbered Houston and then surprisingly pummeled Texas in Austin, 34-12.
UCLA made it three in a row with a 42-28 decision over Washington State. At 3-2 the season was looking bright for the Bruin faithful, but then things quickly turned for the worse, as the team lost its next three matchups against California, Oregon and Arizona.
The Bruins were able to snap the skid with a 17-14 win over Oregon State, but that would be the last time coach Neuheisel's squad felt the thrill of victory, as it lost its final three matchups. In each of those setbacks, UCLA fell by double figures. By year's end, the Bruins had endured their third losing campaign in the last four seasons.
OFFENSE: The offense has been lackluster at best for the past few years, and in 2010 the Bruins averaged a weak 20.2 ppg. For things to change the team is going to need to find success at the quarterback position and coach Neuheisel is certainly aware of that fact.
"Ultimately what we have to do is play the position well. Makes no difference of the name of the back of the jersey to me," said Neuheisel. "What makes the difference to me is that the guy has all the intangibles that are necessary to play it well."
As of now Kevin Prince is likely to start for the Bruins, but he is still recovering from knee surgery. If he is unable to start the year, expect Richard Brehaut to be under center when the Bruins head to Houston.
Regardless, the passing game must be better for the offense to improve, and if the quarterback situation can be figured out that will only mean bigger and better things for running back Johnathan Franklin.
In an offense that did very little last year, Franklin had an impressive season, rushing for over 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns. The junior has the body type to carry the workload in each game, so even if the quarterback is mediocre that should be enough to keep defenses honest and out of the backfield -- for the most part anyway.
DEFENSE: While the offense was unable to score points in 2010, the defense was unable stop the opposition. In fact, UCLA surrendered 9.1 points per matchup more in 2010 than it did the previous year, but despite the severe drop-off, Neuheisel believes his defense will be much better this time around.
"Defensively we will be better," said Neuheisel. "We took it on the chin a little bit because of inexperience a year ago. We lost Brian Prince to the NFL. We lost Datone Jones to a foot injury, so our two experienced guys up front were both lost. So we were gonna be a little bit up hill in the front seven, but I think because of that we are a year better, a year older, a year stronger."
Jones is back and his foot seems fine, and hopefully he can return to form and give the Bruins a dangerous rusher off the end. Pairing him with Owamagbe Odighizuwa gives UCLA a formidable presence up front, something that is severely needed in 2011.
At linebacker, the Bruins lost Akeem Ayers, but even without Ayers this is still a solid group. Patrick Larimore is the one guy who will definitely have to pick up his production for the unit to reach its goals.
The loss of Ayers is huge, but that is not the biggest hole that Neuheisel will have to fill as Rahim Moore, a First Team All-Pac-10 selection at safety must also be replaced. Moore had been the quarterback of this group for the past couple of years, so his absence will definitely be felt.
There is still plenty of talent in the secondary however, beginning with safety Tony Dye, who led the team in tackles last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A strong kicking game is often times undervalued, but having PK Kia Forbath for a couple of years gave coach Neuheisel a legitimate option at that position. However, Forbath is gone and the Bruins will need to rely on a new leg, that likely belonging to Kip Smith.
The return game is also a big part of any successful football program, and the Bruins need someone to step up and take care of business in that department. Josh Smith was solid in that area in 2010 (22.6 ypr), but the Bruins will need to find someone to take care of punts, unless Neuheisel is comfortable with Smith doing double duty.
OUTLOOK: Neuheisel can see the writing on the wall. The Bruins need to make a serious turn around, or his job could be in jeopardy. With that said, UCLA could make a small improvement in the win column, but it won't be much and that is largely because the team's road slate is very difficult.
UCLA opens the year at Houston, which is not terribly tough, but the remaining road schedule contains Oregon State, Stanford, Arizona, Utah and USC. The Bruins avoid Oregon, but still face Texas in week three, and they also have to battle Arizona State, which many believe is the team to beat in the Pac-12 South.
Simply put, for the Bruins to finish above .500 this year they will need to get consistent quarterback play. If the offense has a reliable gunslinger than Franklin will have more success and the Bruins will score more points. It sounds easy, but that has not been the case the past couple years.
Along with better offensive play, the defense will have to return to its 2009 form. It's asking a lot, but stranger things have certainly happened.