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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Ben Bolch

Rose Bowl or a season with thorns? UCLA's best- and worst-case scenarios.

LOS ANGELES — The running back could dart into the Heisman Trophy race by halftime of the first game. The quarterback likely will set school records. The twin edge rushers might pack a wallop that leaves their targets seeing double.

One doesn't have to squint to notice all the ways UCLA not only could contend for the Pac-12 Conference title for the first time under coach Chip Kelly, but also win the thing in a runaway.

The Bruins are experienced at critical positions, they're likely to pile up points, they could be considerably better on defense.

And yet …

There remain more questions than a week's worth of "Jeopardy!" as the team nears its season opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 3 at the Rose Bowl.

The depth at linebacker is frighteningly thin. The offensive line is replacing three starters. The defense, while promising, is unproven.

So will the Bruins be 11-1 and playing for the Pac-12 title in early December? Or 7-5 with renewed calls for Kelly's head?

Here are the best- and worse-case scenarios for UCLA heading into the season:

Best-case scenario

There should be little drama besides the injury report in the early weeks.

A nonconference schedule featuring Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama is going to test only fans' patience.

Feel free to pencil in the Bruins as 3-0 heading into their first conference game, on the road against Colorado, followed by a home game against Washington. Considering the Buffaloes' early success under coach Karl Dorrell appears to be an aberration and the Huskies remain in rebuilding mode under first-year coach Kalen DeBoer, make it 5-0.

That sets up what should be the biggest game of the Kelly era — the undefeated Bruins against defending Pac-12 champion Utah on Oct. 8 at the Rose Bowl. A battle of unbeatens would be so huge that UCLA might even have to remove the tarp covering the top of one end zone section to accommodate more fans.

By this point, running back Zach Charbonnet has joined Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and the other usual suspects in the Heisman Trophy chatter. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will have continued his ascent up the school record charts, nearing marks set by Cade McNown, Brett Hundley and John Sciarra.

New names emerge as stars. Twin edge rushers Gabriel and Grayson Murphy pile up so many sacks they secure name, image and likeness deals with Albertson's. Wide receiver Jake Bobo almost single-handedly — well, he does usually use both hands — offsets the lost production of departed pass-catchers Kyle Philips and Greg Dulcich. Linebacker Darius Muasau turns the middle of the field into a danger zone for anyone venturing into his territory.

Remember that horrible-to-middling UCLA defense, the one sustained weakness during Kelly's first four seasons? It's gone.

The Bruins become not only stout against the run but also muck up opposing passing attacks thanks to a secondary featuring playmaking cornerback Devin Kirkwood. New defensive coordinator Bill McGovern, whose resume is eerily reminiscent of that of his predecessor, reveals himself as a Renaissance man running an aggressive scheme.

The wins pile up. Much more than city bragging rights are on the line when the Bruins face USC on Nov. 19 at the Rose Bowl.

Another victory over the Trojans — albeit much tighter — is a prelude to UCLA returning to the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 2 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the Bruins' first appearance in the title game since 2012.

Everything's coming up roses. After an interminable wait, the Bruins have a chance to go back to their home stadium in early January for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.

Worst-case scenario

The road to disappointment starts with three wins but ominous foreshadowing.

One nonconference game is unexpectedly close, and a few injuries show how thin the team is at linebacker and along the offensive line.

Thompson-Robinson spends the early season scrambling away from defenders who fly into the backfield without much resistance.

Meanwhile, nobody has established himself as a capable running mate for Charbonnet in the Bruins' two-back system. The tight ends are solid but unspectacular, no one stirring any reminders of the force Dulcich became over his final two seasons.

An early stumble in Pac-12 play removes considerable luster from what was supposed to be a showdown against Utah. The Utes reinforce their conference supremacy with a resounding victory at the Rose Bowl, effectively eliminating the Bruins from the Pac-12 race by early October.

The defense that was supposed to be rejuvenated runs like a car with 250,000 miles that hasn't had a tune-up in five years but received a fresh coat of paint. The pass defense continues to leak yardage and late UCLA leads are lost thanks to an inability to generate critical stops. McGovern proves to be Jerry Azzinaro 2.0.

A year after being embarrassed by its rival at home, USC returns the favor with a three-touchdown triumph at the Rose Bowl. As the Bruins trudge off the field in defeat, they are serenaded by "Conquest" from the Trojans band.

Media who picked UCLA to finish fourth in the Pac-12 are proven correct. UCLA eventually makes it to Allegiant Stadium … for the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 17.

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