5 Players To Watch
Anthony Barr (OLB, UCLA, Jr.) and Datone Jones (DE, UCLA, Sr.). On paper, UCLA's defense is good, not great. The Bruins rank 32nd in Def. F/+. But they are solid in the best possible way: they make, and allow, big plays. Opponents completed 63 percent of their passes and threw for 25 touchdowns against the Bruins ... but UCLA also logged a rather incredible 45 sacks along the way from their 3-4 defense. If they don't get to the passer, he'll probably find a receiver roaming open. But they get to the passer a lot. In Barr, the Bruins have your prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker, a guy capable of springing into the backfield on a blitz. He is fourth in the nation with 20.5 tackles for loss, behind only Georgia's Jarvis Jones, BYU's Kyle Van Noy and South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney. Nice company. Thirteen of his TFLs are of the sack variety, which ties him for first in the country with Van Noy, Clowney and Florida State's Bjoern Werner.
But what makes this defense fascinating is the number of plays the Bruins get from the defensive end position, particularly from Datone Jones. A 3-4 end's primary job is typically to occupy blockers and attempt to close in the pocket. But Jones is fourth on the UCLA defense in tackles (50.0), second in TFLs (17.5), and third in sacks (six). He both prevents and makes plays. Despite their pass-heavy reputation, meanwhile, Baylor rushes quite a bit, both from the running back and quarterback positions. The chess match between Baylor's backfield and UCLA's aggressive front seven will be fascinating. And with UCLA safety Tevin McDonald suspended, it will be vital that UCLA win this chess match.
Johnathan Franklin (RB, UCLA, Sr.). In 2010-11, Franklin was a lonely bright spot for a pair of disappointing UCLA squads, rushing for 2,103 yards and 13 touchdowns while splitting time with back Derrick Coleman. In 2012, however, the show was all his. His 268 carries in 13 games were almost five times greater than those of the primary backup running backs -- Jordon James had 59 carries, Damien Thigpen had 50 -- and he made the most of the opportunity, rushing for 1,700 yards, catching 32 passes for 319 yards, and scoring 15 touchdowns. His incredible Pac-12 title game performance (216 yards in 22 touches against a fierce Stanford defense) almost earned the Bruins a Rose Bowl bid. He and redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley make for one of the more explosive backfields in the game.
Lache Seastrunk (RB, Baylor, So.). Of course, there's nothing saying that UCLA even has the best backfield in the Holiday Bowl. The emergence of Lache Seastrunk has taken the Baylor offense to a new level; after a slow start as a backup to Glasco Martin and Jarred Salubi, the five-star sophomore (and Oregon transfer) caught fire in Baylor's last five games, rushing for 693 yards, gaining 103 yards through the air, scoring six touchdowns, and almost single-handedly knocking Kansas State from the ranks of undefeated teams (against the Wildcats, he rushed for 185 yards). He will be getting some offseason Heisman hype (at least, if he has anything to say about it), especially if he goes off against the Bruins.
Terrance Williams (WR, Baylor, Sr.). Is it possible for a consensus All-American to still be a bit underrated? Terrance Williams is one of the best deep-ball muses of the last decade or two, and he has continued to produce at an incredibly high level after the transition from Robert Griffin III to Nick Florence at quarterback. He combines explosiveness (18.6 yards per catch) with efficiency (64 percent catch rate) like almost nobody in the college ranks can do; in fact, he is the only player in the country with at least 60 targets, at least a 64 percent catch rate and at least 18 yards per catch. He's, uh, good. And this is your last chance to see him in green and gold.
4 Reasons To Watch
1. Seriously? You're thinking about not watching Lache Seastrunk, Johnathan Franklin, Nick Florence, Brett Hundley, Terrance Williams, Shaquelle Evans, Tevin Reese and a ferocious UCLA defense? Really? I think it might be more challenging to write a "4 Reasons Not To Watch" list.
2. See Reason No. 1. Just watch. You won't regret it.
3. See Reason No. 1. What these teams lack in overall elite play, they make up for with fun and aggression.
4. Bonus football. Bonus football!
3 Key Factors
1. Baylor on standard downs. If UCLA can leverage Baylor into passing downs, the Bruins might have a decent amount of success in getting after Florence. Baylor is certainly solid on passing downs -- they are 10th in the country, as a matter of fact -- but it is a Bruin strength, too, and on standard downs Baylor should hold a severe advantage. The UCLA defense better take advantage of every passing down because it might not get many.
2. Yeah, uh, Baylor does have to stop UCLA, too. It is easy to get hypnotized by the high volume of Baylor's weapons (that I've barely mentioned Tevin Reese and his 51 catches for 889 yards is rather criminal), but let's not ignore the fact that, while UCLA's passing game isn't dynamic as Baylor's, the Baylor defense is far inferior to UCLA's. Baylor improved to 92nd in Def. F/+ this season, but they still can't finish drives. They rank a reasonable 65th on standard downs but fall to 93rd on passing downs. Their 46 tackles for loss are dreadfully low (not even half of UCLA's 95), and while their secondary is successful in taking risks at times (18 interceptions), they are often unsuccessful (64 percent completion rate, 3,877 yards, 81st in Passing S&P+). And it probably goes without saying that Franklin and Hundley should find running room on the ground. Remember last year's Alamo Bowl? Well, UCLA's defense is better than either Baylor's or Washington's was last year, but a sequel still isn't out of the question.
3. Turnovers as broken serves. If this game does become a shootout, any stop is a good stop. And a stop that sets up (or prevents) an easy score is worth double. Baylor has certainly proven comfortable in shootouts in recent years, but both teams have shown the propensity for both forcing turnovers (29 takeaways for UCLA, 25 for Baylor) and committing them (25 for UCLA, 20 for Baylor). Turnovers swing any game, but they could make the difference in this one.
F/+ Pick: UCLA by 4.8.
Bill's Pick: Baylor by 2. In seven overtimes. Let this one last a long time, please.
1 Shutdown Fullback
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