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Can Aggies Overcome SEC’s Thorny Rose Bowl Past?

By Matt Smith
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Four times this century, SEC teams have ventured out west to the hallowed grounds of the Rose Bowl. Three of the four times, those teams from the self-proclaimed best conference in college football have left defeated.

Four times this century, SEC teams have ventured out west to the hallowed grounds of the Rose Bowl. Three of the four times, those teams from the self-proclaimed best conference in college football have left defeated.

No. 3 Alabama was run out of the grand old stadium by UCLA in the 2000 season opener, nine years prior to winning the 2009 national title there with a win over Texas.

Alabama’s rival, Auburn, came just seconds short of claiming another SEC national title four years later, falling 34-31 to Florida State in a classic championship game. Tennessee was a sizable favorite in the 2008 season opener against the Bruins, but the game turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Philip Fulmer era after the Vols were beaten in overtime.

On Sunday night, Texas A&M tries to turn the SEC’s luck around when it goes for a home-and-home sweep of UCLA in Pasadena’s most iconic landmark. The Aggies overcame a late Bruins rally last season in College Station with an overtime victory.

How does Texas A&M, which could have 30 or 40 percent of the crowd with Aggies backers excited to make the once-in-a-lifetime trip, prevent UCLA revenge? Let’s look closer at the 2017 Bruins, who find themselves in similar waters to their opponent.

UCLA’s 4-8 record in 2016 was its worst since 2010. The offensive line was a disaster, as the Bruins managed a woeful 2.9 yards per carry and lost star quarterback Josh Rosen to a season-ending injury at midseason.

Four of five starters on the line return, which may or not may be a good thing. New coordinator Jedd Fisch has brought a renewed sense of focus to UCLA after Kennedy Polamalu was fired after one forgettable season. Fisch comes from Michigan, where the Wolverines ran a pro-style attack, with fits Rosen’s strengths.

In addition to Rosen’s return, UCLA brings back its top five rushers and two receivers. The line will be the key, but Texas A&M is reloading on the defensive line without All-American Myles Garrett and a very productive Daeshon Hall. Which questionable unit wins this battle in the trenches could determine the victor.

If you look up mediocre in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a picture of the 2016 UCLA defense (assuming the dictionary was printed in the last nine months, I suppose). UCLA brings back six starters from a defense that was the epitome of average. They did nothing particularly well, but nor did they have a fatal flaw to expose.

In its first 10 games last season, these are UCLA’s allowed regulation points: 24, 21, 14, 22, 24, 23, 27, 52, 20, 24. Outside of a shootout defeat to Utah, that is remarkably and consistently mediocre.

The defensive front has to replace first and third-round NFL Draft picks, but does add in early enrolling freshman Jaelan Phillips – the most highly-rated defensive line recruit in the nation. He may not start on Sunday evening, but he’ll be rotated in.

Standout senior Kenny Young is back at inside linebacker, but his running mate from the past two seasons, Jayon Brown, is now a Tennessee Titan. The projected starting secondary returns an impressive 46 career starts, but their best cornerback from a year ago, Fabian Moreau, was a third-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins.

What does that all add up to? Another likely year of consistent mediocrity for respected coordinator Tom Bradley’s unit.

25-30 points seems about right for Texas A&M, which, despite likely having a first-time starting quarterback with redshirt freshman Nick Starkel the favorite to open the game, still has a potent offense with All-American Christian Kirk and sophomore tailback Trayveon Williams.

The game comes down to the Texas A&M defense, which must disrupt and confuse Rosen for the second straight year. Last year in College Station, the Aggies sacked Rosen five times and intercepted him three times, but needed overtime to win thanks to a gutty fourth-quarter performance from the quarterback after being hit hard all afternoon.

Rosen and the Bruins are aiming for revenge in a game that they, like the Aggies, need desperately to help secure the future of their embattled head coach, Jim Mora. Texas A&M is perfect in regular-season non-conference games under Kevin Sumlin, but this the first Power Five team they’ve played outside of Texas.

Auburn and Tennessee know all too well about SEC heartbreak in Pasadena. Texas A&M hopes to avoid a similar fate in its first trip to California since the 2006 Holiday Bowl. If it doesn’t, LSU, and Georgia, which are scheduled to visit the Rose Bowl in 2021 and 2025, may want to look into cancelling their contracts.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.