Considering the sputtering state of the UCLA program he took over, Jim Mora's first season as a collegiate head coach couldn't have been much more impressive.
With key players returning as well as the arrival of an acclaimed recruiting class, he thinks his second year could be even better.
The 21st-ranked Bruins open Saturday night by hosting Nevada in the schools' first meeting.
Inheriting a team that had gone 10-16 over the previous two seasons, Mora guided UCLA to a 9-5 record and Pac-12 South title in his first year as a coach since being fired by the Seattle Seahawks in January 2010.
After just its second win over archrival Southern California since 1999, UCLA ended with three straight losses. Two of those defeats, though, were to powerhouse Stanford, including 27-24 in the Pac-12 title game decided by a fourth-quarter field goal.
Mora's roster appears to be dotted with reasons why the Bruins are a trendy pick to contend for the league's championship again.
"In all my years of coaching college football, this is the best-looking team I've had," Mora said facetiously, his only previous collegiate experience coming as a graduate assistant with Washington in 1984. "This team just looks different. It's bigger. It's more physically imposing. If we can keep developing this way, we can eventually meet our goals."
UCLA returns stars on both sides of the ball in quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Anthony Barr. Hundley accounted for 4,095 yards of total offense last year as a redshirt freshman, breaking Cade McNown's single-season school record.
Hundley threw for 29 touchdowns while running in nine more, though he'll hope for better protection from a more experienced offensive line after being sacked 52 times -- 10 more than any other FBS quarterback.
"We've got to make sure what people thought of us last year doesn't go to our heads," Hundley said.
Barr, whose 13 1/2 sacks last year lead all returning FBS players, earned second-team All-American honors in his first season after switching from offense to defense. However, he's just one of five returning starters on a defense that will lean on heralded freshman Eddie Vanderdoes after losing senior defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa due to offseason hip surgeries.
UCLA received good news last month when the NCAA ruled Vanderdoes eligible for the season. His status had been unclear after he committed to Notre Dame on national signing day, then chose the Bruins to be closer to his cancer-stricken grandmother.
"Because we don't have Owa, it's just critical that we were able to bring Eddie in," Mora said. "Now, Eddie is young. As good as he was in high school, this is just a different level, so I think we have to be careful about how much we expect of him right away."
After the retirement of Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault, Brian Polian takes over a Nevada squad that went 7-6 last season. The Wolf Pack are coming off their eighth consecutive bowl appearance and were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West Conference's West Division.
"I cannot express how excited I am to lead the Nevada football program into what will be a very bright future," said the 38-year-old Polian, who has served as an assistant for numerous schools, most recently with Texas A&M.
Nevada receiver Brandon Wimberly has caught a pass in all 40 of his career games, the FBS' longest active streak.
This marks the third straight season Nevada has opened on the road against a Pac-12 foe. The Wolf Pack lost 69-20 to then-No. 13 Oregon in 2011 and defeated California 31-24 last year.
Nevada has allowed an average of 47.6 points in losing all 10 road meetings against Top 25 opponents since 1999.
Top 25 Overview
This should be a solid first test for the Bruins against a Nevada team that gave the Pac-12 some trouble last season. Containing Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo will be a top priority. Against two Pac-12 teams last season (Cal and Arizona) he completed 74 percent of his throws (47 of 63) and rushed for 237 yards and three touchdowns.