UCLA is on the move, but don't tell anybody

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

If it seems like UCLA's thrilling win at Tennessee in front of 100,000-plus fans is getting underplayed, Bruins fans should rejoice.

Last year, UCLA's overtime win over Tennessee was accompanied by some aggressive marketing, not to mention coach Rick Neuheisel's return to college coaching at his alma mater, and then things turned ugly.

Bruins haters subsequently gloated. And the inevitable tweaks followed.

UCLA doesn't need to be loud right now. In fact, it should be perfectly content laying low and hoping it continues to be underestimated.

Barely any Top-25 recognition? No worries!

For one, the Bruins need to refocus on Kansas State, which visits the Rose Bowl Saturday. The Wildcats are a shell of the team they were during coach Bill Snyder's prime -- heck, Snyder is probably appalled he is playing a challenging nonconference game -- but they are a Big 12 team that welcomes back 14 starters from a 5-7 squad.

So this isn't a gimme, even if the Wildcats are coming off a loss at Louisiana-Lafayette, particularly with the Bruins losing starting quarterback Kevin Prince for three to four weeks due to a broken jaw.

Guess here is Neuheisel at some point will mention 59-0 at BYU last year. Letdown games can be cruel, as the team across town also knows.

If the Bruins do focus and play to their ability, they will improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2005.

And they will be halfway to bowl eligibility -- Neuheisel's modest preseason goal -- even before the calendar flips into October.

While the Bruins figure to continue to be offensively challenged this year, the line -- the biggest preseason concern -- is clearly better than last year's unit, despite being the youngest crew in the Pac-10 and perhaps in the nation.

And the defense? It's as expected and perhaps then some.

Defensive tackle Brian Price, linebacker Reggie Carter, cornerback Alterraun Verner and safety Rahim Moore look like first-team All-Pac-10 players who should get All-American consideration.

Moore grabbed his fourth and fifth interceptions of the season against Tennessee and had a sixth nullified by a penalty. By the way, the Pac-10 single-season interception record of 14 set by Washington's Al Worley has stood since 1968.

At this point, the Bruins are the program in the Pac-10's muddled middle that has first asserted itself as a threat to the teams generally projected in the conference's top third.

Of course, Prince's absence could be an issue for an offense that is trying to take baby steps back to respectability. The Bruins have a well-timed bye after Kansas State, then visit Stanford on Oct. 3. The likelihood is Prince won't be ready for that game.

But he should be ready for Oregon and California on Oct. 10 and Oct. 17. Both must face the Bruins in the Rose Bowl.

But shhh. Maybe the Ducks and Bears won't see the Bruins coming.

What UCLA won't keep quiet long, however, is how the trajectory of the program is clearly trending up. Neuheisel signed an elite recruiting class last year and appears to be headed in that direction again.

Moreover, the offense is starting seven players who are sophomores or younger, the defense five.

Neuheisel might not yet own Boardwalk and Park Place on the LA football Monopoly board, but he's rapidly buying up those valuable yellow and greens -- from Atlantic to Pennsylvania Avenue -- as he pushes the Bruins back into the national picture.

But shhhhh. No need for anyone to pay too much attention just yet, right?