With Oregon pulling away from Michigan State at home in the second half last week, the free pick analysis remains undefeated for the young college football season after identifying the Ducks -12. This week, we return to a "neutral" field game as UCLA heads to Arlington to take on the Longhorns (we are treating this as a true neutral field game, but UCLA would be favored to win and cover on this line in Austin - plus, based on recent personal experience, it may take longer to drive from Austin to Arlington than fly from Westwood). This is a matchup between one team with legitimate college football playoff aspirations and another program in rebuild mode. That was true before the season and, regardless of what we have seen thus far, that has to be the expectation going into this game and with respect to its projected outcome.
There is a difference between not quite as great as anticipated and a total mess. Though UCLA has not looked dominant in its two wins, they were still victories in unique settings and situations where it is fairly easy to lose the game outright. The Bruins still have a top ten roster given talent, coaching and experience. Texas, on the other hand, is in serious trouble and may take a step back this season before moving forward with better players and more discipline under Charlie Strong.
UCLA currently ranks 18th overall, in our updated Week 3 College Football Power Rankings, just two spots behind BYU, who defeated Texas in Austin 41-7 last week. The Bruins are a top 35 team from an efficiency standpoint in each of our strength-of-schedule-adjusted efficiency metrics. They are strong at quarterback where junior Brett Hundley leads the 12th ranked passing efficiency offense in the country, and against the run where UCLA is a top ten team in the nation. Ten starters return on offense from 2013, while the defense returns its entire secondary and three members of the front seven. Last season, UCLA went 10-3 against the seventh toughest schedule in the country, averaging 36.9 points-per-game and allowing just 23.2.
The Bruins have not been dominant thus far in the season, edging Virginia 28-20 on the road and getting past Memphis 42-35 at home last week. Both games were not as bad for UCLA as the tight scores would suggest. The Bruins gave up a non-offensive touchdown to Memphis and out-gained the Tigers by more than a half a yard per play. The opener took place at 9 am "local time" (PT) for UCLA against a Virginia squad that is much better, particularly on defense than the perception. A weekly top 20 ranking, national title hopes and Pac-12 championship contention should still be expectations at UCLA.
It's different right now in Texas. The Longhorns are currently playing without starting quarterback David Ash, an efficient player who means double-digits to our expectations of the offense, yet whose career may be over due to concussions. As sophomore QB Tyrone Swoopes has stepped in, it certainly does not help that two starting offensive linemen have been suspended and another lost for the year to injury within the last three weeks. Texas only put up 258 total yards against a BYU defense last week that compares favorably to UCLA (BYU is #38 in defense, #12 against the pass and #24 against the run, UCLA Is #34/#17/#9). The Longhorns also turned the ball over four times in the messy game. It is difficult to expect much different this week.
Both teams are led by defensive minded coaches and have incredible depth and talent on that side of the ball. Meanwhile, both offenses have failed to live up to expectations thus far and look like they are still working on improving (obviously, to very different degrees). UCLA winning in a relative blowout also means that this game could stay under the total as neither team may have much motivation to push tempo and hit big plays in the second half.
According to 50,000 games played by the Predictalator, UCLA wins on average 69 percent of the time and by an average score of 29-17. As 7.5 point favorites topping the Longhorns by double-digits on a neutral field, UCLA covers the spread 58.6 percent of the time, which would warrant a $65 wager from a normal $50 player. The UNDER (50) is also a decent play, covering 56.7 percent, enough to justify a $45 play from a normal $50 player. There are 11 stronger totals and three stronger against-the-spread picks on Saturday.