LOS ANGELES (AP) — If No. 7 UCLA can live up to the lofty expectations it carries into the new season, its first two road games will merely be trial runs for bigger and better things to come.
A cross-country trip to Virginia on Saturday for the Bruins’ season opener should prepare quarterback Brett Hundley or two-way star Myles Jack for December’s Heisman Trophy presentation in New York City. A neutral-site game against Texas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, should give UCLA plenty of familiarity with the venue that will host the new College Football Playoff championship game on Jan. 12.
And a bevy of pundits expect UCLA to add both trophies to its collection. The Bruins are a popular national pick for a third-year breakthrough under coach Jim Mora, and they’re eager to get underway.
“It definitely feels different,” Jack said. “You can close your ears all you want, but you are going to hear what people are saying about your team, and you are going to come across an article here or there, or turn on ESPN and hear them say good stuff about us. We’re aware of what the expectations are.”
Those expectations have electrified the program, which has not contended for the top prizes in college football since 1998. A loss at Miami on the final day of the regular season kept UCLA from playing for the inaugural Bowl Championship Series title, and quarterback Cade McNown finished third in the Heisman voting.
Mora doesn’t share the football world’s interest in his Bruins. When asked Tuesday if he was aware of the flurry of favorable predictions, Mora’s reply was a pointed “nope.”
“That’s how I answer it,” Mora added. “We don’t talk about it, we don’t think about it. It’s all about Virginia.”
UCLA faces plenty of obstacles along the path to those lofty goals, including a loaded Pac-12 schedule that includes home games against No. 3 Oregon, No. 11 Stanford and No. 15 Southern California and trips to No. 19 Arizona State and No. 25 Washington.
The Bruins’ most immediate concerns are on the offensive line. Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche will take over at left tackle for second-round draft pick Xavier Su’a-Filo, while starting center Jake Brendel’s availability for the opener is in doubt because of a knee injury he suffered two weeks ago.
There is also the matter of replacing the 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss contributed by outside linebacker Anthony Barr last season, though a gifted and deep group of defensive linemen should pick up the slack.
Jack, who was named Pac-12 offensive and defensive freshman of the year last season for his two-way efforts, has no such concerns and is just happy that the season is about to begin.
“Not thinking about the bigger picture, we can start simmering down on just Virginia,” Jack said. “That’s all we’re worried about this week. No other teams matter. You lose this game and everybody goes away.”
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