Both Texas A&M and UCLA will have a lot at stake when they open the season in the Rose Bowl (Sunday, Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m. ET, Fox).
The expectations at UCLA have climbed over the years, as Jim Mora has been recruiting higher-ranked classes than any other team in the conference, save for USC. The 2017 roster includes potential No. 1 pick Josh Rosen at QB and players like 2017 No. 1 recruit Jaelan Phillips, a DE. The win total has fallen in two straight years after a No. 10 finish in 2014, but now the Trojans appear to be back at full power.
A&M has also recruited like heroes, with seven players drafted in the first round since Kevin Sumlin took over, including 2016 No. 1 pick Myles Garrett. Yet the Aggies have a 21-19 record in SEC play. And like the Bruins’ rivalry situation, they have to deal with Tom Herman boosting the Longhorns’ recruiting.
It’s a show-me year for both squads, and this high-profile opener will get the hot-seat narrative rolling for the loser.
Each team will have some major issues going under the microscope in this contest.
Who’s driving this thing?
Sumlin bought a year with the transfer of QB quarterback Trevor Knight into the vacuum left when former five-star QB recruits Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray both transferred out. With Knight at the helm, the Aggies built a strong run game.
But now, the Aggies are choosing among somewhat experienced senior Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, and true freshman Kellen Mond.
Like most spread offenses, the attack works best with a dual-threat QB. Much of A&M’s run game uses keep-option reads for the QB, with linemen pulling around to trap or lead block for their RBs. Watch left tackle Koda Martin at the bottom of the OL here:
With RBs like Trayveon Williams (1,057 rushing yards in 2016) and Keith Ford (669 yards) and another solid OL featuring possible breakout star in Martin, the Aggies stand to gain from running.
However, they also have star WR Christian Kirk, who needs to be heavily involved. You can see him torching Alabama’s iffy adjustment to his deployment on the boundary against big safeties:
So A&M needs a solid passer who can spread the ball around to an explosive receiving corps and who is also a solid enough runner. That player might not be on the current roster.
Hubenak has experience starting against SEC defenders and made a name in JUCO by getting the ball to explosive playmakers, throwing for 4,000 yards and 47 touchdowns while working with eventual Heisman-finalist Dede Westbrook. Hubenak offers a steady presence and knows the offense but isn’t going to terrify opponents with his legs or his arm.
Starkel throws a nice ball, but he doesn’t bring much to the run game. It’s hard to see the Aggies rolling with a rookie pocket passer whose abilities put a governor on a run game in the SEC West.
Then there’s Mond, by and far the most dangerous running threat of the three, with real potential in the passing game. He also threw a couple of picks in limited time in the spring game and has even less experience than Starkel.
So the Bruins are looking at an opening matchup against either the not-particularly threatening Hubenak or a freshman. Any further insights will have to be gleaned from social media.
Rosen under pressure
Last year, UCLA made a show of moving to a pro-style offense to allow Rosen greater command at the line of scrimmage than he had under former OC Noel Mazzone (now at A&M, ironically), who ran a simpler offense. The problem was that depended on running the ball, and the team lacked the personnel to impose its will in the box.
Last year, Rosen’s three INTs in an otherwise solid overtime game at A&M came during one of many ineffective ground days for the Bruins. UCLA had the country’s saddest run game, ranking No. 127 in yards per carry despite having a five-star QB for five games and plenty of talent elsewhere.
Now this offense is coordinated by Jim Harbaugh disciple Jedd Fisch, who built effective offenses while similarly lacking the pieces up front to establish a dominant run game. Now he can help Mora and Rosen operate a dropback attack of the sort that college defenses generally don’t have great answers for, when executed at a high level.
A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis might be missing Garrett, but he has some players who will test the Bruins’ ability to execute that style.
The 2017 A&M defense will likely be a sort of 4-3/3-4 hybrid that brings heavy, five-man blitzes involving linebackers like Justin Dunning (J on the diagram) and Otaro Alaka (W). Free safety Armani Watts and nickel Donovan Wilson are proven playmakers, and the secondary should be in good shape to help an inexperienced, athletic LB corps play aggressive.
The Bruins offense is apparently having a good fall camp. If it’s up to snuff on pass protection and Rosen is clicking with his receivers, it could tear this defense apart. But if it isn’t ready to handle a pressuring style, then it’ll fall to its run game. A&M would prefer handoffs to dropbacks.
Overall, the L.A. matchup favors the Bruins
A&M hopes it can balance its offense enough that its QB manages the game while the backs and Kirk do the heavy lifting. On defense, the plan will be to make the most of a veteran secondary and bring pressure up front.
UCLA has some established weapons in a veteran OL, its top two leading receivers, and Rosen. The Bruins also have sufficient starters back along their defense and some talented players in year two under DC Tom Bradley.
There are a good deal more knowns for the Bruins and more obvious paths that will allow them to make the most of their star talent, Rosen.