Game Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
How to watch online: CBSSports.com
Odds: Texas A&M (-1), -105 (A&M Moneyline), -115 (UCLA Moneyline), 54 (O/U)
The Texas A&M Aggies and UCLA Bruins both finished the 2015 season with 8-5 records but perception, as we’ve often learned, is in the eye of the beholder. For many, UCLA’s 8-5 season wasn’t cause for concern. Under the guidance of freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, the Bruins weren’t the trendy College Football Playoff pick that they were in 2014. They were able to still muscle their way to an eight-win season, but UCLA fans were far from restless.
Meanwhile in Aggieland, A&M’s 8-5 season was essentially labeled a disappointment. The quarterback situation imploded on itself and led to not one but two departures in the offseason. Despite an array of talent on both sides of the field, the Aggies tumbled in the polls with only one victory over a ranked team - Mississippi State - which likely wound up being the peak of their season.
2016 will be major for both teams, and on Saturday, one of them will get started in the right direction.
No Joshing Around
The aforementioned Rosen certainly showed lots of flashes in his freshman season, and it’s manufactured some hype for him heading into his sophomore campaign. Rosen has risen to being one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12 Conference, but he’s going to be mightily tested in his first outing of 2016.
After brashly talking about A&M’s crowd noise the other day, Rosen is likely to deal with a very, very loud and hostile crowd at Kyle Field. Not only that: the sophomore quarterback may come under fire on the field often. UCLA is replacing three players on their offensive line - Jake Brendel, Caleb Benenoch and Alex Redmond, each of whom started at least 12 games in 2016. The only players remaining from last season who played in at least 11 games are tackle Conor McDermott and guard Kenny Lacy. Not the best news when you know you’ll have to stare at the likes of Myles Garrett, Daylon Mack, and Daeshon Hall on each down.
In addition, UCLA will be trotting out an almost entirely new crop of skill position players. Jordan Payton, Thomas Durate, Paul Perkins and Devin Fuller are all gone. Darren Andrews returns, and brings his 42 catches and 429 yards from a year ago along with him, but almost all of the rest of the group are newbies. Five-star back Soso Jamabo who could feature on the All-Name Team is aboard and we’ll certainly see if he has the chops to match his expectations, but Rosen won’t have it easy. If he’s as good as many suggest that he is, he’ll be a difference maker. But he’ll be facing an uphill battle if A&M’s defense plays up to snuff.
A Dark Knight Perhaps Looms As Well
Just because it will be difficult for Josh Rosen doesn’t mean the same remains true for quarterback Trevor Knight either. Knight will be facing a UCLA defense that is extremely potent on the back end. The front seven has talented defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes but is absent Kenny Clark, Aaron Wallace and Myles Jack, all of whom departed in the offseason to the NFL.
The secondary, though, has plenty of continuity. Dang near everyone is back and the unit is headed, primarily, by safeties Jaleel Wadood and Randall Goforth. Cornerbacks Fabian Moreau and Marcus Rios hung around as well alongside John Johnson, Adarius PIckett and Denzel Fisher. Mind you that the UCLA pass defense was 18th in S&P+ a season ago and ranked 11th on passing downs, all while having relatively low sack totals and disruption in general.
While the dynamic Christian Kirk will be on the field alongside Ricky Seals-Jones, Josh Reynolds and Speedy Noil among others, Knight will have an uphill battle to fight as well.
When it comes down to it, the quarterback might be the most impactful player on the field for both squads for both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum.
So, what happens?
The odds favor Texas A&M in this game, but not by too much as they opened as a 1-point favorite before being bumped up to a 3-point favorite later on. Kyle Field should give them a healthy advantage and their front seven against a rebuilt offensive line gives credence to the thought that Josh Rosen could have a long day at the office in College Station.
It will however be intriguing to see how the A&M offense plays. There are plenty of talented skill position players around, Kirk being the biggest dynamo of them all. However, Knight wasn’t exactly a slinger in his years at Oklahoma. His career YPA of 7.0 doesn’t strike much of a chord, and his last full season produced marks of 14 touchdowns to 12 interceptions.
Skepticism looms over the Aggies offense for this reason for me, so you should fully expect them to come out and blow the doors off UCLA of course.
Prediction: Texas A&M 27, UCLA 24