CINCINNATI – UCLA coach Chip Kelly will learn a lot about his team early on this season, beginning with this Thursday's road opener against a Cincinnati squad that returns 14 starters from last year's 11-win team. The Bruins are hoping to avoid a repeat of last season, when the Kelly era started with five straight losses, including a 26-17 loss to Cincinnati in the opener.
TV: 7 p.m. ET, ESPN. LINE: Cincinnati -3
After visiting the Bearcats, UCLA returns home to face San Diego State and Oklahoma before opening conference play with back-to-back road games against Washington State and Arizona. The Bruins recorded their fewest victories in 30 years in last season's 3-9 campaign, but there's reason for optimism with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson primed to take a step forward following an up-and-down freshman year. Thompson-Robinson will be tested early by Cincinnati's veteran secondary, which recorded 11 of the team's 12 interceptions last season. The Bearcats are looking to build on last season's surprising success after second-year coach Luke Fickell engineered a turnaround that featured a freshman quarterback, a sophomore running back and a 35-31 win over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl.
ABOUT UCLA (2018: 3-9)
Picked to finish third in the Pac-12 South preseason media poll, the Bruins could have true freshman tackle Sean Rhyan in the starting lineup if Alec Anderson isn't cleared to return following offseason surgery on his right leg. Senior running back Joshua Kelley, who rushed for 1,243 yards last season, missed much of the preseason due to a knee injury but returned to practice last week and should receive a heavy workload against the Bearcats. Junior cornerback Darnay Holmes leads the secondary, but the Bruins need more pressure from their front line after finishing 119th in the country in sacks last season.
ABOUT CINCINNATI (2018: 11-2)
The Bearcats feature an impressive ground attack led by Michael Warren II, who ran for 1,329 yards last season and set school records for overall touchdowns (20) and rushing touchdowns (18). Quarterback Desmond Ridder looks to take another step forward after starting 11 games and completing 62.4 percent of his passes last season, when he was named AAC rookie of the year. Picked to finish second in the East Division of the American Athletic Conference behind UCF in the preseason media poll, the Bearcats have question marks on the defensive line but several playmakers at linebacker – including senior Perry Young, who is set to return just eight months after having ACL surgery.
1. Cincinnati has won eight consecutive season openers and 14 of its last 15 since 2005.
2. UCLA played a school record 21 true freshmen last season.
3. Cincinnati led the AAC in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense last season.
PREDICTION: Cincinnati 27, UCLA 20