FACTS & STATS: Site: Rice Stadium (70,000) -- Houston, Texas. Television: CBSSN. Home Record: UCLA 0-0, Rice 0-0 Away Record: UCLA 0-0, Rice 0-0. Neutral Record: UCLA 0-0, Rice 0-0. Conference Record: UCLA 0-0, Rice 0-0. Series Record: UCLA leads, 4-0.
GAME NOTES: The Jim Mora era begins for UCLA on the road when the Bruins travel to Houston to take on the Rice Owls at Rice Stadium in a season-opening affair Thursday night.
One of a number of marquee hirings in the Pac-12 during this off season, UCLA brought in the former Atlanta Falcons head coach to take over for a team that went just 21-30 over the last four seasons, including a 6-8 mark in 2011.
The Bruins also opened last season in Houston against the Cougars whom they took down 38-34. From there the Bruins alternated wins and losses for the next six games. then went on to win three of the next four before a 50-0 embarrassment to rival USC in the regular-season finale. Due to the Trojans' ineligibility the Bruins still made it to the Pac-12 title game where they were unceremoniously dumped by Oregon (49-31) before a 20-14 loss to Texas in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
Playing in Conference USA, the Rice Owls managed just a 4-8 record last season due in large part to a grueling schedule that included losses at Texas, at Baylor, at Northwestern and at C-USA champion Southern Mississippi. The team's record left it ineligible for the postseason for the fourth straight season.
UCLA leads the all-time series 4-0 with the last meeting a 26-16 triumph in 2006 at the Rose Bowl.
Under former head coach Rick Neuheisel, UCLA had been utilizing a pistol offensive scheme. That will be drastically different under Mora and new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. The new scheme will be one more dedicated to spreading the field and passing the ball.
After a long summer of four-way competition it will be redshirt freshmen Brett Hundley who will get the starting job at quarterback. Mora had been rather quiet about who would take over the job but it is now Hundley's to lose. Hundley beat out seniors Richard Brehaut and Kevin Price for the job.
As the team breaks in a new quarterback and offensive scheme, it will need star running back Johnathan Franklin to continue to carry a heavy load. Last season he rushed for 976 yards at 5.9 yards per carry, with five touchdowns. Those numbers will more than likely reach even higher with the departure of Derrick Coleman, who scored 11 rushing touchdowns and ran for 765 yards last season.
Shaquelle Evans is the most experienced receiver that the Bruins have which speaks to the lack of depth at the position. Evans caught 19 passes for 309 yards last season. That will leave a large amount of passes for tight end Joseph Fauria. The 6-foot-8 senior is an imposing force and can be especially lethal in the red zone. Fauria caught 39 passes for 481 yard and six scores in 2011.
Left guard Greg Capella and right tackle Jeff Baca are the only two returning starters on the offensive line.
Mora will also be bringing in a new defensive scheme under coordinator Lou Spanos. In the new 3-4 system, Spanos will try to get more production from a squad that ranked 89th in total defense in 2011.
The shift in defensive strategy will require strength at the linebacker positions which the Bruins are lucky to have. Patrick Larimore and Eric Kendricks were the top two tacklers for the team last season, combining for 158 stops. Damien Holmes (32 total tackles) is a third reliable option.
It is difficult for a defense to get stops if the opposing quarterback has plenty of time to make decisions. That is something UCLA learned last season when it recorded only 14 sacks as a team, ranking a dismal 112th in the country. Defensive ends Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh both return as starters and touted freshmen Ellis McCarthy will also try to revamp the weak defensive line.
Without the pressure on the quarterback the Bruins put a lot of pressure on their secondary which did well considering ranking 64th nationally against the pass. Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price both return as the starting cornerbacks and Tevin McDonald will roam as the free safety after nabbing three interceptions last season.
Not surprisingly for a team that finished just 4-8, Rice was not a strong offensive squad in 2011. The Owls averaged only 23.3 points per game and 347.7 total yards of offense a contest to rank 91st in the nation.
Even though the team struggled offensively, Taylor McHargue, who has been the starting quarterback for the last two seasons, will again get the job this season. McHargue has been hampered by injuries over those two seasons but completed 57.5 percent of his passes for 1,072 yards last year, with eight touchdowns and five interceptions.
Rice is not a team that relies heavily on its air attack with the majority of its offensive production coming on the ground. This year however, will see much less experience in the backfield with the team's top two rushers from last season gone to graduation. Charles Ross (12 rushes, 49 yards) will be the new starter. The reliance on the run will also be hurt by the lack of experience on the line, where right guard Drew Carroll is the only returning starter.
There is good news for the offense which will get back Sam McGuffie after an injury-shortened 2011. MCGuffie lead the team in rushing and receiving in 2010 and will be used primarily as a slot receiver this season. He will team with Vance McDonald (43 receptions, 532 yards) to lead what could be a talented group of receivers.
Head coach David Bailiff will need the defense to make even bigger strides this season, after the team allowed a whopping 462.1 yards per game last year. To accomplish that Bailiff promoted Chris Thurmond to defensive coordinator this season.
Thurmond will find his most reliable players in the secondary where three starters return. Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan are both talented corners. Callahan led the team with six interceptions last season. Corey Frazier and Paul Porras also return as starting safeties with Porras (91 total tackles) the second highest returning tackler.
Rice's defense will also get a boost from the return of linebacker Cameron Nwosu, who led the team with 108 total tackles last season. Nwosu will have to take on a leadership role and continue the high level of production for a unit that is not filled with experienced players.
The defense line is also thin, where Jared Williams is the lone returning starter.
Since his hiring UCLA players have raved about Mora's insistence on discipline and toughness which the Bruins will hope can put UCLA back on the map. The beginning of that road starts in Houston against a team also looking to bounce back from a few seasons of losing.
With a playmaker like Franklin and strength on defense, UCLA will be too much for the inexperienced Owls to contend with.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: UCLA 31, Rice 7Game Date and Time
Thursday, August 30th, 7:30 p.m. (et)