Quarterbacks take center stage when No. 16 UCLA and Texas A&M meet Saturday in College Station, Texas.
UCLA, the Pac-12 media's pick to win the league's South Division, is led by sophomore Josh Rosen, whose blend of size, arm strength and football IQ is reminiscent of a young Andrew Luck at Stanford. He completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,670 yards, with 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, as a freshman last season.
Texas A&M, after losing Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray to transfers after last season, re-armed with Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight, who will try to be a one-year savior. Knight lost his Sooners' starting job to Baker Mayfield last season but has passed for 3,424 career yards and helped Oklahoma upset Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
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Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said Knight made a seamless transition into the team.
“That's a special skill set for guys to come in and do that. Created friendships in a short period of time with guys in his room,” Sumlin said Tuesday. “That really helped his growth and helped the team's growth and the offense's growth. Wouldn't say that was a surprise, but it was just an added benefit he brought.”
Even though Texas A&M is unranked, it is a slight favorite to win the game, perhaps owing to its home-field advantage and crowd in excess of 100,000. Defensive end Myles Garrett might have something to do with it, too.
Garrett, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, had 12.5 sacks last season. He'll be hunting Rosen's blindside if he can get past senior left tackle Conor McDermott, a projected second- or third-round pick, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
“We'll put a tight end on that side at times, and we'll use our backs to chip him (Garrett) at times,” UCLA coach Jim Mora told the L.A. Daily News. “And there will also be times when Conor just has to take him on and get the job done. That's what football's all about.”
Another subplot is that Texas A&M's new offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone, spent the past four seasons with UCLA. Sumlin said any edge goes to the Bruins.
“If anything, Jim Mora has familiarity with Noel,” Sumlin said. “If there's any advantage, I would give it to UCLA. There's a new coordinator (at UCLA, Kennedy Polamalu) and we don't have anything on him.
“I don't think that's going to have any bearing.”
Mazzone gets to game plan with one of best receiving corps in the nation, led by sophomore Christian Kirk, who caught 80 passes for 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. Ricky Seals-Jones and Josh Reynolds are experienced, tall targets.
UCLA doesn't have that kind of depth at wideout for Rosen, although senior Ishmael Adams' switch from All-Pac-12 cornerback to full-time receiver could pay dividends. He has shown his game-breaking ability with the ball in his hands; he has three interception returns for touchdowns, as well as a kick return score.
The game marks the return of UCLA defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, a run-stuffing pro prospect who suffered a torn ACL in last season's opener.
UCLA and Texas A&M split four games, the last coming in the 1998 Cotton Bowl, a 29-23 victory for the Bruins. This is UCLA's first trip to College Station.