Virginia Tech-UCLA Preview
Jim Mora has UCLA on the cusp of its best season in eight years, and that's precisely why the Bruins want him around for the long term.
Frank Beamer's tenure at Virginia Tech has yielded the longest active streak of bowl appearances for a coach.
With Mora reaffirming his commitment to the No. 17 Bruins, he'll try to lead them to their first postseason win in four years on New Year's Eve in their first meeting with Beamer and the Hokies in the Sun Bowl.
UCLA (9-3) is on the verge of winning 10 games for the first time since going 10-2 in 2005. That was also the last time it finished among the Top 25, ranking 16th.
The Bruins fell just short of reaching double-digit victories last year, losing 49-26 to Baylor in the Holiday Bowl to cap Mora's first season at the helm with a three-game losing streak.
He's planning to remain in Los Angeles for a while. Mora signed a six-year contract extension in early December that UCLA may be hoping quells interest from high-profile programs with openings.
That hasn't quite happened, however, as Mora has been mentioned as a potential replacement for Mack Brown at Texas. He's refuted the link.
"Rumors. It's flattering," Mora said. "I think it says a lot about our program and the direction we're heading, but I am very, very, very extremely delightfully happy to be the head coach at UCLA, and want to be for a very long time."
With Mora staying, that could increase the chance of quarterback Brett Hundley returning for his junior season.
Hundley leads the Pac-12 with a 67.8 completion percentage, throwing for 2,845 yards with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He's been picked off once while tossing eight scoring passes over the past five games.
Hundley also leads the team with 587 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. He reached the end zone twice with his legs Nov. 30 in leading the Bruins to a 35-14 win over then-No. 23 Southern California in the regular-season finale.
Hundley ran 13 times for 80 yards, adding 208 more while completing 18 of 27 passes.
UCLA, though, has struggled to protect Hundley, who has been sacked 33 times, second-most in the conference.
Limiting the activity in the backfield may be difficult since Virginia Tech (8-4) leads the ACC in sacks (37) and ranks among the nation's top 10 against the rush (103.8 yards per game), the pass (168.5) and in interceptions (19).
The Hokies' success isn't a surprise to Mora.
"They play great special teams, they play outstanding defense. That's what they do," Mora said. "They play hard. They play with discipline. You don't see technique errors. You don't see missed assignments. You see a bunch of guys who know what they're supposed to do with a lot of certainty, and they do it fast and they do it with bad intentions.
"It's an impressive team to watch."
While Mora is just getting started at UCLA, Beamer is leading Virginia Tech into a 21st consecutive bowl game. That's the longest active streak for a coach, while it's second among active bowl runs by a team behind Florida State's 32.
Logan Thomas is expected to be under center for his third straight bowl, but he'll likely need to be better to give the Hokies a chance. He's completed 34 of 67 passes for 407 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions over the first two.
Thomas played well in November even though the Hokies went just 2-2. He averaged 9.06 yards per attempt with seven TDs and three INTs in those final four contests, throwing a 26-yard touchdown to Trey Edmunds late in the fourth quarter to seal a 16-6 win at Virginia to conclude the regular season.
Edmunds leads Virginia Tech with 675 yards while averaging 4.1 per carry with 12 touchdowns - 10 rushing. He's facing a UCLA defense that gave up an average of 193.6 rushing yards over its last seven games.
The Bruins' backfield includes Myles Jack, the Pac-12's freshman of the year on both offense and defense - starring at linebacker and as a running back. He gained 269 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 37 carries, punching it in four times in a 41-31 win over Washington on Nov. 15.
''To have an opponent like UCLA is a real challenge,'' Beamer said. ''But that's what you like at this time of year - to play a game that means something against a quality opponent. That's what we've got, and in a great setting, a great bowl situation.
''The reality is we're fortunate to be here. With the young people that we've played and the injuries that we've had, the competition of our league. I think the ACC gets bigger and stronger every year. I think we're hanging in there pretty well so far in the bowls. I think it's just a fact of life: the ACC is getting more competitive. It's not a given that you can win eight games or nine games or 10 games.''