12 things UCLA must do to win the Pac-12 in its farewell season

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Goodbye, good riddance and … good to see you again?

That would be UCLA’s preferred farewell to the Pac-12, the Bruins winning the conference title that has eluded them since 1998 and snagging another trophy on their way to the Big Ten.

It won’t be easy. A new starting quarterback, however talented, can’t stumble. The defense can’t resemble any of those that came before it under coach Chip Kelly. The fans can’t keep making excuses not to show up at the Rose Bowl, no matter how hot it gets or how late the opening kickoff comes.

Here are 12 things that must go UCLA’s way to win the Pac-12:


1. Navigate a deceptively tough schedule

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers quarterback Grayson McCall.
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers quarterback Grayson McCall (10) passes the ball during a college football game against the Appalachian State Mountaineers on Oct. 20, 2021 at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, North Carolina.
(Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


At first glance, UCLA’s schedule looks like another Football Championship Subdivision-sprinkled cakewalk. For the second year in a row, there’s no Power Five nonconference opponent, just two relative nobodies plus a FCS gimme in North Carolina Central. The Bruins also get to skip Oregon and Washington as part of their Pac-12 rotation.

But …

Name recognition issues aside, Coastal Carolina is bringing back fifth-year quarterback Grayson McCall — not to mention his top three receivers — and has gone 31-7 over the last three seasons.

San Diego State will host the Bruins at Snapdragon Stadium, where the Aztecs need their first signature victory going into their second season at the 35,000-seat venue. The big-boys-up-Interstate-5 intimidation factor will be gone after San Diego State broke through in 2019 at the Rose Bowl for its first victory over UCLA in school history after having previously gone 0-21-1.

As far as Pac-12 play goes, UCLA’s three toughest games — against USC, Utah and Oregon State — are all on the road. Steady play from the Bruins’ new starting quarterback is going to be required to win any of those games.

Which brings us to ...


2. QB1 avoids DEFCON 1

UCLA quarterback Dante Moore throws at practice.
UCLA quarterback Dante Moore throws at practice. Moore is vying to UCLA’s first true freshman starting quarterback since Josh Rosen.
(Jesus Ramirez / UCLA Athletics)


Kelly’s offenses always rely heavily on the run game, meaning that whoever wins the starting quarterback job won’t have to carry the team.

So relax, Dante Moore and Ethan Garbers. Whoever prevails in this two-man race just needs to manage the offense, avoid turnovers and complete a few timely passes. Fumbles and interceptions are nonstarters — as in, too many might lead to a spot on the bench — even though Kelly has intimated he’s going to give his new starter plenty of leeway to learn on the job.

If Moore becomes UCLA’s first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener since Josh Rosen in 2015, he’ll try to emulate his predecessor in another way — Rosen led the Bruins to a 4-0 start and a No. 7 ranking while capturing the nation’s attention.

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3. The defense finally shows up

Darius Muasau #53 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after a tackle against the Alabama State Hornets
(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

Players, coaches and fans are tired of talking about it, much less seeing it repeat itself like a bad movie on late-night television.


UCLA’s defense has stunk under Kelly. It ranked 86th in the nation last season, No. 70 in 2021, No. 69 in 2020, No. 113 in 2019, No. 102 in 2018.

But new defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn has a lot more going for him than a decade’s worth of NFL coaching experience. Laiatu Latu appears poised to become an All-American edge rusher. Darius Muasau, Ale Kaho and Oluwafemi Oladejo could make their school Linebacker U once more. And there’s quality depth in the secondary and on the defensive line.

At the very least, Lynn should earn his $25,000 bonus for presiding over a top-50 defense, if not double that amount should the Bruins crack the top 25.


4. ‘Hardened Steele’ emerges at running back

Ball State running back Carson Steele is tackled by Tennessee linebacker Aaron Beasley during a game in September.
(Wade Payne / Associated Press)

UCLA has featured dynamic rushing duos nearly every year under Kelly, wearing down opposing defenses with their relentlessness.


Now the Bruins will unleash “Hardened Steele,” a nickname given to the new expected 1-2 punch of T.J. Harden and Carson Steele. Harden was practically unstoppable late last season, rushing for 89 yards against California and 111 yards against Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl.

Steele arrives from Ball State with a reputation for strength (he can squat 675 pounds) and toughness (he has a pet alligator, Crocky-J, back home in Indiana). They will be joined by veteran Colson Yankoff and Army transfer Anthony Adkins, giving running backs coach DeShaun Foster plenty of enticing options.

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5. Fans fill up the Tarp, er, Rose Bowl

A view of the Rose Bowl during UCLA's game against Oklahoma on Sept. 14, 2019.
(Los Angeles Times)

Home attendance has become a sad storyline for the Bruins.

Even in Kelly’s first game at the Rose Bowl, when he was still riding the promise of recapturing his Oregon glory, only 54,116 fans showed up to see UCLA face Cincinnati. The Bruins lost, commencing a snail’s-pace start under their new coach that would see them go on to post average attendances of 43,848 in 2019, 45,818 in 2021 and 41,593 in 2022 — the three lowest totals since the team started calling the Rose Bowl home in 1982.

To relieve the sight of so many empty seats, one school-colored tarp was installed in an end zone in 2021 followed by an additional tarp on the opposite side of the stadium in 2022.


School officials removed one tarp late last season to accommodate a season-high crowd of 70,865 for the game against USC. If all goes well this season, they will both eventually come off.


6. J. Michael Sturdivant becomes the next J.J. Stokes

UCLA wide receiver J. Michael Sturdivant makes a catch in spring practice.
(Sam Lazarus / UCLA Athletics)

No offense to the legion of quality receivers UCLA has had in recent years, but this guy just looks different.

Striding in a blur down the sideline before snagging passes with those sure hands, Sturdivant has immediately become a favorite target after transferring from California. At 6 feet 3 and 205 pounds, his combination of size and speed might remind some of the legendary Stokes, who finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting during the 1993 season before later becoming the 10th pick in the 1995 NFL draft.

Sturdivant must use his similar potential to dominate overmatched defensive backs.


7. Laiatu Latu lives up to his pledge

UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu gets double-teamed during a game against Arizona State in November.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)


At Pac-12 media day, Laiatu Latu said he wanted to lead the country in sacks and identified 15 as the number it would take to get there.

The edge rusher, who was a national comeback player of the year in 2022 after returning from a debilitating neck injury, could be poised for even greater things in 2023, given the compliments he’s earned from teammates in training camp.

“Latu, man,” Moore said, unprompted, about the defender who continually gives him fits in practice, “it’s just — oh, my gosh, it’s insane.”

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Aug. 6, 2023


8. They have staying power

UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches players during practice at Spaulding Field on Aug. 2.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Bruins have universally praised the offseason running program that director of football performance Keith Belton and his staff put together, citing faster sprint times and a fresher feeling during training camp.


Now they need it to translate onto the field. Kelly was known for having teams that wore down opponents in the fourth quarter while at Oregon, though that was largely a function of the Ducks’ insane pace.

If the Bruins can gain a step on their counterparts while maintaining stamina late in games, it’s going to provide a huge advantage.


9. A break goes their way

UCLA linebacker Kain Medrano celebrates an interception against USC in November.
(Ric Tapia / Icon Sportswire via Associated Press)

Last season, the Bruins benefited from a boneheaded fake field-goal attempt that backfired for South Alabama, opening the door for their own game-winning field goal.

At some point, they may need some similar luck this season. An opponent’s fumble, a pass thrown into triple coverage or a wrong decision on fourth down could suffice.


Whatever mistakes are made by the other team will be welcome, particularly late in close games.


10. The depth charge pays off

UCLA running back T.J. Harden breaks a tackle during a loss to Pitt in the 2022 Sun Bowl.
(Andres Leighton / Associated Press)

This is easily Kelly’s deepest team at UCLA.

There could be four starter-level quarterbacks and running backs. An offensive lineman comes up lame? No problem, take your pick from among the handful of quality backups.

Those injuries at linebacker and along the defensive line that crushed the defense last season aren’t nearly as big a worry in 2023, given all the available bodies. And these aren’t just last-resort replacements but former starters in some cases.

Among other things, the enhanced depth could lead to bigger rotations, keep everyone fresh and avoid overuse injuries.


11. Conversions go up

UCLA wide receiver Jake Bobo catches a touchdown pass in front of California safety Craig Woodson in November.
(Jed Jacobsohn / Associated Press)

The Bruins converted 15 of 26 fourth-down attempts last season, a 57.7% success rate that ranked No. 36 nationally. That was down a bit from 2021 (64.5%, No. 22) but a huge improvement from 2020 (41.2%, No. 110).

Kelly might be less likely to go for it on fourth-and-short early in the season with a new quarterback — or at least to throw passes in those situations if he does. But the size and strength of his running backs, as well as their ability to grind out yards after initial contact, should make Kelly feel confident his team can get a yard or two whenever needed.


12. Chip Kelly stays happy

UCLA coach Chip Kelly talks with his players during a win over Utah in October.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The famously guarded coach has acted like a new man recently, no longer parsing reporters’ questions and even joking with them about possible name, image and likeness beer names (Bruin Brewskis? Fours-up Firewater?).


He’s been so relaxed during interview sessions that he’s reflexively twirled a whistle around his hand in mid-answer, a favorite habit usually reserved for watching practice.

Nothing would make Kelly happier than his first Pac-12 title since his second-to-last Oregon season in 2011.