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Win or lose but no draws: A primer on UCLA’s 2021 football schedule

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly covers his mouth with a playbook while standing on the sideline
UCLA coach Chip Kelly has yet to win a nonconference game with the Bruins. That could change in the upcoming season.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
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UCLA kicks off the 2021 college football season a week early against Hawaii. Take a closer look at each matchup on the Bruins’ schedule:

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Hawaii, Aug. 28 at the Rose Bowl

Reasons to pick UCLA: Chip Kelly has to win a nonconference game at some point, right? Right? The Bruins went 0-6 under Kelly, including 0-4 against Group of Five opponents, before the pandemic wiped out their 2020 nonconference slate. Yes, the teams UCLA lost to finished a combined 68-14 in 2018 and 2019 — with Oklahoma going 12-2 and advancing to the College Football Playoff in each season — but any sort of pass was yanked away when Kelly became the first coach in school history to lose to San Diego State. He’ll be expected to get into the win column thanks to senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and a veteran core of 20 returning starters.

Reasons to pick Hawaii: The Rainbow Warriors went a respectable 5-4 in 2020 during coach Todd Graham’s first season, beating Houston in the New Mexico Bowl. They feature an attacking defense similar to the ones Graham ran at Arizona State and tout one of the nation’s most versatile players in Calvin Turner, who can run the ball, catch passes and throw passes as a wildcat quarterback in addition to returning kickoffs and punts. If Hawaii pulls off the upset, it might be time to ready Kelly’s $9-million buyout.

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LSU, Sept. 4 at the Rose Bowl

Reasons to pick UCLA: The Tigers might as well be 100 years removed from the national championship they won 18 months ago. They didn’t geaux anywhere in 2020, finishing 5-5, and coach Ed Orgeron remains under fire for his handling of a sexual misconduct scandal involving a few players. UCLA also possesses the sort of depth and veteran savvy needed to notch its most attention-grabbing nonconference victory since whomping seventh-ranked Texas 34-12 in 2010.

Reasons to pick LSU: It’s still LSU. The Tigers routinely win most battles on the offensive and defensive lines and feature more talent than a Cirque du Soleil troupe, with cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks selected as Walter Camp preseason All-Americans. Plus, there’s the revenge factor: When Orgeron was USC’s interim coach in 2013, a 35-14 loss to UCLA factored heavily into his not getting the permanent job that went to Steve Sarkisian.

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UCLA Bruins football preseason camp news, analysis, video and more updates.

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Fresno State, Sept. 18 at the Rose Bowl

Reasons to pick UCLA: Thompson-Robinson’s first career home start, against the Bulldogs in 2018, was one he would rather forget but has presumably stuck with him like a bad grade in freshman English. He completed 10 of 24 passes for 151 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions during an equally unpleasant 38-14 loss. This could be the start of a personal redemption tour with plenty of stops.

Reasons to pick Fresno State: Like the Bruins, the Bulldogs return 20 starters. The entire defense remains intact and the team is bringing back nine of its 10 All-Mountain West Conference selections. Fresno State’s game at Oregon on Sept. 4 will give a good indication of whether its longtime motto of “Anybody, Anytime, Anywhere” still holds true.

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Stanford, Sept. 25 at Stanford Stadium

Reasons to pick UCLA: The Bruins won’t have to defend receiver Simi Fehoko after he moved on to the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, though UCLA’s defensive backs didn’t exactly put up much resistance last season at the Rose Bowl. After never previously topping 100 yards in his college career, Fehoko made a school-record 16 catches for 230 yards and three touchdowns during the Cardinal’s 48-47 victory over UCLA in double overtime.

Reasons to pick Stanford: The Cardinal have won 12 of the last 13 meetings in the series and always seem to find a way to prevail, rallying from a 34-20 deficit with 5½ minutes left in the fourth quarter last season. They’ll need to find a capable starting quarterback in the battle between Tanner McKee and Jack West.

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Arizona State, Oct. 2 at the Rose Bowl

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson against Arizona State on Dec. 5, 2020.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

Reasons to pick UCLA: Thompson-Robinson has trumped counterpart Jayden Daniels in each of their head-to-head meetings, helping the Bruins win the last two games between the teams. The Sun Devils also could be staggering from the fallout of alleged major recruiting violations involving coach Herm Edwards and his assistants.

Reasons to pick Arizona State: Assuming the Sun Devils emerge from the recruiting violations relatively unscathed, they are set to return 20 starters, including their entire defense. Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum are back from a running game that piled up 264.3 yards per game last season, helping Arizona State average a Pac-12 Conference-leading 40.3 points.

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Arizona, Oct. 9 at Arizona Stadium

Reasons to pick UCLA: Catching footballs dropped out of a helicopter might have generated buzz to start the Jedd Fisch era in Tucson but isn’t likely to lead to a lot of early victories for a depleted roster. The Wildcats ventured deep into the transfer portal, snatching 10 players to fill a variety of holes, including at quarterback upon the departures of Grant Gunnell and Rhett Rodriguez.

Reasons to pick Arizona: Bad things often happen to the Bruins at Arizona Stadium, including a 20-17 loss in 2019 that seemed inexcusable given that Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate and running back J.J. Taylor sat out with leg injuries. UCLA fans are also familiar with Fisch’s offensive fireworks after he helped the Bruins roll up plenty of points in 2017 during his one season as the team’s offensive coordinator.

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Washington, Oct. 16 at Husky Stadium

Reasons to pick UCLA: This will be a double revenge game for the Bruins, with receiver Colson Yankoff and backup quarterback Ethan Garbers eager to beat their former team after the Huskies attempted to block the transfers’ immediate eligibility. Yankoff sat out the 2019 season as a result, but Garbers will be available if needed in what could be the ultimate grudge match.

Reasons to pick Washington: The Bruins could be jetlagged by the time they arrive in Seattle for the final portion of back-to-back road games. Of greater concern will be a Huskies roster that returns 19 starters, including the entire offensive line and most of the defense in what will be coach Jimmy Lake’s first full season with the team.

After missing eight practices, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has returned to camp. He wouldn’t say why he was out.

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Oregon, Oct. 23 at the Rose Bowl

Reasons to pick UCLA: The Bruins were a dropped pass away from possibly toppling the Ducks last season while missing nine players — including Thompson-Robinson — because of COVID-19 issues. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll take the extra step needed to win this time around, but there will be zero intimidation factor against the defending Pac-12 champions.

Reasons to pick Oregon: Anthony Brown, the presumptive replacement for departed quarterback Tyler Shough, showed in the spring game that he can be more than a capable game manager. It helps that Brown has a deep receiving corps in addition to veteran running backs Travis Dye and CJ Verdell. If new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter can make the necessary tweaks, the Ducks should contend for their first appearance in the College Football Playoff since 2015.

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Utah, Oct. 30 at Rice-Eccles Stadium

Reasons to pick UCLA: The Bruins have lost four consecutive games in the series mostly because they gave up an absurd average of 47.5 points. But the team’s defensive trajectory needle is pointed upward after the switch to an attacking 4-2-5 alignment in 2021, giving UCLA a chance for its first victory over the Utes since 2015.

Reasons to pick Utah: The team will be playing its season in honor of late running back Ty Jordan, who accidentally shot himself last Christmas. Running backs T.J. Pledger (Oklahoma) and Chris Curry (LSU) have joined quarterback Charlie Brewer (Baylor) and receiver Theo Howard (Oklahoma, UCLA) as potential impact transfers who could propel the Utes to their third Pac-12 South Division title in four years.

The Pac-12, Big Ten and Atlantic Coast conferences near an agreement to join forces, a source familiar with the discussions confirmed to The Times.

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Colorado, Nov. 13 at the Rose Bowl

Reasons to pick UCLA: Four turnovers in the first 1½ quarters doomed the Bruins when these teams met in their season opener last November. UCLA nearly recovered from the resulting 28-point deficit before falling short in a 48-42 setback, which represented their most lopsided loss of a season in which their four losses came by a combined 15 points. That number — 15 — is continually flashed on video boards throughout the Wasserman Center, a reminder of how close the Bruins are to a breakthrough under Kelly.

Reasons to pick Colorado: The snickers over coach Karl Dorrell proclaiming his team as contenders for the Pac-12 South title in his first season died with four consecutive wins to start 2020. The season ended with a thud, Colorado enduring back-to-back losses to Utah and Texas in the Alamo Bowl, but a solid foundation was laid even with quarterback Sam Noyer departing via the transfer portal. Brendon Lewis will fill the vacancy as part of an offense that thankfully returns star tailback Jarek Broussard.

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USC, Nov. 20 at the Coliseum

Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) is tackled by UCLA linebacker Leni Toailoa.
UCLA’s Leni Toailoa tackles USC quarterback Kedon Slovis on Nov. 23, 2019.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Reasons to pick UCLA: A boneheaded kickoff and some bad coverage in the secondary during the game’s final minute last season cost the Bruins a victory over their rivals. Thompson-Robinson said in a postseason video that he returned for his senior season in part to “beat the ever-living s— out of ‘SC,” and he’ll hardly be the only Bruin motivated to do so.

Reasons to pick USC: The Trojans haven’t lost at home to the Bruins since 2013 and return the usual surplus of talent that tends to tilt the rivalry in their favor. Quarterback Kedon Slovis might have to show increased mobility given the offensive line’s struggles in the spring game, but the arrival of transfer tailback Keaontay Ingram from Texas could lead to a running renaissance at Tailback U.

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California, Nov. 27 at the Rose Bowl

Reasons to pick UCLA: The Bruins rolled over the Golden Bears with such ease last season that it felt more like a spring game. The matchup had been hastily scheduled after Utah was forced to back out of a game at the Rose Bowl because of a roster depleted by COVID-19 concerns, and Cal played as if it was missing far more than the two defensive tackles that were held out because of the virus. Even with the Bears back to full strength, UCLA should have a significant talent advantage.

Reasons to pick Cal: Quarterback Chase Garbers, Ethan’s older brother, will want to win the sibling rivalry in what could be their only matchup at the college level. Plus, no Pac-12 team might be more eager to erase the memories of 2020 than the Bears after they had four games canceled and went 1-3.

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