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If the hype builds around UCLA, the Bruins are better equipped to handle it

LOS ANGELES -- Jim Mora didn't ask for the hype last year. Neither did his players. There were no bold predictions of dominance or proclamations of unfinished business coming out of Westwood. But they got it all the same.

Once quarterback Brett Hundley announced he was returning for another season, the Bruins shot up the national power rankings. Hundley was a Sports Illustrated cover boy. Myles Jack was going to revolutionize football. And for a little nitrous in the hype engine, Lou Holtz went on College GameDay and picked the Bruins to win the national championship.

"There were expectations put on us that were far-fetched and way too out there," said center Jake Brendel.

Mora believed he had a pretty good football team. But he also knew a lot of things would have to come together for his Bruins to win the conference, let alone the national championship.

"Were we ready for it? I don't know," Mora said. "In the NFL, there's only one thing you're after every year. That's the Super Bowl. There's only one champion. So I look at life like that anyway. I'm not going to go into any season thinking it's OK to not win the national championship.

"There's outside perceptions and then there's internal reality. What we try to do as a staff is not let the kids be influenced by the outside expectations. As hard as you try to do that, there is always going to be some level of influence because they all have access to what other people are saying about them. It's everywhere. It's so prevalent. You can't get away from what other people are saying about you, and it didn't used to be that way. It certainly becomes a factor."

For all of the talent, the Bruins were still a fairly immature team -- both physically and in the realm of garnering national attention.

"Realistically, no, we weren't ready for it," Jack said. "It was a lot. You can only ignore so much when people tell you what you're going to be. Eventually it seeps in. You feel like you have to live up to it -- at least that was my perspective. I don't want to blame things on that. But we were tight. I think we felt like we had to blow everybody out. If we didn't win 49-0, we couldn't figure out what was wrong."

The reality is nothing was wrong -- really. The Bruins were a good football team. A 10-win football team. But they weren't experienced enough yet at key positions to handle a championship-bound Oregon or a veteran Stanford -- or even an upstart Utah which played last year with nothing to lose.

"There was no way we could measure up to what people were saying about us, no matter what happened," said quarterback Jerry Neuheisel, who is vying to be Hundley's replacement. "For a part of the beginning of the year, there was this expectation not only to win, but win by a lot. We were winning, but it didn't seem to matter."

And predictably, the newcomers to the national scene had a massive letdown at the end of the season. With the division title on the line, they were blown out at home by Stanford 31-10. Mora said he could almost see the writing on the wall.

"We've had some disappointing games against Stanford, and two of them have come right after we've beaten USC," he said. "That's a horrible excuse for having a bad game. To me, that's an indicator that they were coming off a high of beating USC. That's not OK. We have to find a way to be a little more even-keeled emotionally so that when we beat USC, we can come back the next week and play a tough Stanford team and still play with emotion.

"I think we've learned from that experience and going through it. Reaching back and feeling that disappointment of the Utah game or Stanford game or Oregon game and realizing that we weren't quite there."

So far in the months leading up to the 2015 season, the hype has been minimal, if at all. Well, at least on the field. A series of offseason public relations snafus -- the Roquan Smith incident, Adrian Klemm's suspension/reinstatement, Sean "Diddy" Combs and his heat-seeking kettlebell -- have put a lot of the attention away from the field.

On it, however, the feeling nationally is that the Bruins have missed their window, so all eyes have turned to L.A.'s other team. The team, mind you, the Bruins have beaten by an average of 17 points over the past three seasons.

But if UCLA -- which should start the year ranked in the top 20, if not top 15 -- jumps out to a fast start, the hype machine could/would/should start rolling again. Wins at Arizona, the defending South champs, and against ASU would put the Bruins back in the top 10 and set up an intriguing Thursday night game with Stanford.

With the exception of quarterback -- and granted, that's a pretty important position -- the Bruins are older, deeper and stronger at pretty much every other position across the board than they were in 2014. Perhaps the hype came one year too soon. Either way, if it returns, the Bruins say they'll be ready this time around.

"I think we've done a lot of growing up," said linebacker Kenny Young. "If we do good things, people will write about it. If we do bad things, people will write about it. That's going to happen no matter what. But I think now we know how to handle it."