It’s often said that teams improve the most from Week 1 to Week 2 in college football. Whether or not that’s true, it is important to remember that the first game of the season is after all only one game. We play twelve of them in the regular season, so it’s wise to not take too much away from those opening week matchups.
It’s hard to not be impressed with the Oklahoma Sooners, though. After one week of college football play in the rearview mirror, the No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners (1-0) look like a championship-level football team. They started the 2018 season with high expectations, and have so far exceeded them, looking like the class of the Big 12.
The UCLA Bruins (0-1), however, opened their season with a loss in what might end up having been their most winnable game of 2018. With a new head coach in place, this team might be in full-on rebuild mode. If either one of those first impressions is a little too reactionary, though, we’ll find out on Saturday when the two squads square off in Norman, OK.
UCLA hit the reset button last season and fired Jim Mora, their sixth year head coach who went 17-19 in his last three seasons. In his place they hired Chip Kelly, the former Oregon head coach who went 46-7 from 2009-2012 before trying his hand at the NFL. Kelly found less success in the professional ranks, but has a proclivity for producing high-scoring offenses.
Kelly inherited a UCLA team that had lost many of its biggest pieces from 2017, including a load of experience along the offensive line and an NFL first round quarterback. Defensively, he was tasked with improving a defense that had some veteran players, but had underperformed under Mora.
The biggest question for the Bruins headed into the 2018 season was over how long it would take for Chip Kelly to recreate the kind of success he experienced at Oregon. UCLA’s season opener suggests that there’s a lot of room for improvement, as the Bruins were beaten 26-17 at home by a Cincinnati team that went 4-8 last year.
Still, there were some positives to take away from the Bruins’ opener. The defense held Cincinnati to 4.8 yards per pass, revealing the secondary as the strength of the team. The defensive back trio of Nate Meadors, Darnay Holmes, and Adarius Pickett should be tough for teams to pass on all season.
Defending the run out of their 3-4 defensive scheme might be more of a challenge. Linebacker play was uneven last Saturday, and the Bruins gave up almost 200 yards.
Offensively, Kelly’s scheme seems like it needs time to develop. The Bruins’ play there was also uninspiring, something that is possibly due to the injury of their starting quarterback, Michigan transfer Wilton Speight. Speight is currently day-to-day with a back injury, so UCLA will likely start true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
The young signal caller, who might be a better fit for Kelly’s offense, played in relief of Speight in the opener. Thompson-Robinson’s age showed, however, and UCLA’s 306 total yards on offense did not inspire confidence. The offensive line struggled to provide consistent relief and open up holes for the running backs, and there were issues with execution all day.
If other teams across the country have gotten off to a slow start, the Sooners did anything but that last Saturday in Norman.
Coming into 2018, there were two primary issues that Oklahoma had to address: how effective the offense would be after losing one of the best quarterbacks in school history, and whether the Sooners could improve defensively after being gashed in multiple contests last season.
In their home opener against Florida Atlantic, the Sooners raced out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter. The offense had scoring plays of 30, 65, and 17 yards in that quarter and did not take their foot off the gas pedal until the second half. FAU did not score until late in the third quarter, when Oklahoma was up 56-0.
As expected, Oklahoma’s offense is powered by the athleticism they have across the board. Quarterback Kyler Murray has elite athleticism and escapability, and he just might have the fastest group of wideouts in the Big 12. Running backs Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon, who combined for 169 yards on 11 carries, are always a threat to take one to the house.
Defensively, the Sooners were solid all day, particularly in their secondary. Defensive backs like Trey Brown and Parnell Motley led the team in tackles, and the Sooners held the Owls to just 6.0 yards per pass and 192 total yards passing on the day. The back end is already shaping up to be a strength for Oklahoma this season.
The key strength of this Sooners team might be along their offensive line, which doesn’t look to be taking a step back in 2018. Oklahoma pushed around an FAU defensive line that was supposed to be fairly stout last week, and they will probably be mauling box defenders for the next three months.
Keys To The Game For Oklahoma
Get Off To Another Fast Start – Something that’s often easy to miss is how raising the score early on opposing teams makes it easier on your own defense. Giving your defense a comfortable lead to work with can allow them to play fast and loose, so that they just fly around and make plays. In addition, this is not a UCLA team that is necessarily built to come from behind and score in bunches. Put this game away early.
Pay Attention To Execution And Ball Security – It’s hard to see the Bruins winning this game unless they benefit from Oklahoma having poor execution and not taking care of the football. Coming off a big week where they stomped an opponent into the ground, it will be tempting for the Sooners to not pay attention to the little things. That needs to be a focus this week against a team that has some legitimate blue chip talent on its roster.
Stop The Run – This is not something Oklahoma really struggled with last week, but it certainly needs to be a focus against UCLA. If Thompson-Robinson is the starter for this game as expected, don’t expect Chip Kelly to throw a ton of passing concepts at a true freshman who just started taking college reps five weeks ago. Make the Bruins try to beat you through the air, and it will probably be a long plane ride back to L.A.
This is not a game in which I expect UCLA to be competitive. The Bruins are an extremely young team and look like they could realistically only win three or four games this season. In addition, UCLA has a new staff trying to basically build a program up from scratch, whereas Oklahoma has staff members that have been in Norman for over a decade.
That being said, Oklahoma could struggle on Saturday if they don’t approach this game with the same kind of focus that they had last week. Jim Mora did a decent job of recruiting while at UCLA, so there are talented players on the roster. If anything, that potential, along with Chip Kelly’s ability to coach up the offense, gives the Bruins a chance to keep this game close.
Of course, UCLA would have to find a way to contain the Oklahoma rushing attack and force Kyler Murray to throw into the talented secondary of the Bruins. That would at least keep the game close and allow UCLA to slow this contest down.
The Bruins might be able to slow down the Sooners for a little while, but elite play along the offensive line is almost impossible to beat in college football without bona fide playmakers in the front seven. I will take UCLA to find a way to cover the 30 points, but I think Oklahoma wins this game by a few touchdowns.