UCLA football is scheduled to kick off its 2021 season against Hawaii on Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
It has been roughly eight months since the Bruins last took the field, and nearly two years since fans have been allowed to see them play. So much has stayed the same, with UCLA bringing back almost all of its major contributors from a year ago, but even more has changed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and more.
Heading into the Week 0 matchup, here are the most pressing questions we want to have answered by the final whistle.
Can Kelly brake the streaks?
With an entire offseason building up to this matchup, sometimes the narratives have gotten a little repetitive.
That can certainly be said for the focus on Kelly's history in nonconference games and season openers, as the fact he is winless in both has been absolutely beaten to death over the past few months.
And for good reason.
Starting every season 0-1 technically doesn't cost UCLA anything in the race for the Pac-12, but its starts the program in a hole every season in the fight for bowl eligibility. It is also an early sign for fringe fans and neutral observers that the team probably isn't going to be worth following or buying tickets to see.
Nonconference wins also help showcase your team to new markets, new recruits and new fans, and it definitely doesn't do UCLA or the Pac-12 any favors when the Bruins lose to Mountain West, AAC, Big 12 or SEC programs every year.
1-6 in nonconference games is not a very high bar, nor is 1-3 in season openers. Whether or not Kelly can reach that bar will be determined Saturday.
Will Charbonnet get a chance to shine?
Brittain Brown is listed as RB1, and from what the media has seen in practice and fall camp, it looks like he'll get the touches to show it.
Hawaii had a notoriously poor run defense last year, giving up 212.3 yards per game on the ground. That's surely a welcome sight for Brown, who already averaged 6.6 yards per carry as a powerful backup ball-carrier in 2020.
That essentially makes Brown a lock to be a key contributor, but one fresh face may or may not get tossed into the mix early on.
Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet proved himself with 726 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman in Ann Arbor in 2019, but losing touches and wanting to be closer to home brought him to Westwood in 2021. Charbonnet has been running through scrimmages and drills as RB2 since spring camp, and he has impressed almost anyone who's watched him with his one-cut mentality and physical frame.
Coach Chip Kelly could ease him into the offense and lean on Brown and Keegan Jones to start the season, or he could make Charbonnet option 1B right off the bat. Maybe, if UCLA is ahead and looking to run clock in the second half, he'll become the lead man over Brown.
He'll have a role of some kind, it's just hard to determine exactly what it is at the moment. The play styles of Brown and Charbonnet don't mesh as obviously as Brown and Demetric Felton's did, meaning Kelly, offensive coordinator Justin Frye and running backs coach DeShaun Foster may have to get creative for them both to be contributors.
How many fans will be at the Rose Bowl?
The Bruins were having attendance issues back in 2019, when they put up their worst home numbers of the century. Their 43,849 average attendance that season was the lowest since the team moved to the Rose Bowl in 1982.
Then a pandemic hit, UCLA went an entire year without hosting fans and now the Rose Bowl is back to full capacity.
There is a mask requirement for those in attendance, but no vaccine mandate like at other notable schools. The unique blend of factors creates a situation that's difficult to project, with third-party sellers, no shows and anti-vaxxers creating a difficult environment to make accurate predictions.
It remains to be seen if fans are eager to get back after the long hiatus, or if some are still weary given the ongoing public health crisis. Interestingly enough, something as far removed as UCLA men's basketball's Final Four run in March could actually give the football team a boost, with so many people building up an appetite to watch any Bruins in person following such an unexpected and unifying streak.
Putting aside the reasons behind what will or won't happen, the end result stands as the biggest question mark.
There could be 50,000 fans there Saturday, or only 25,000, or somewhere in between. Regardless, it will surely be worth discussing after the fact.
Is Dorian Thompson-Robinson legit?
Thompson-Robinson has long been seen as a rising star in the college football landscape.
He's earned plenty of preseason love from the media and awards voters, but has still yet to really take the national stage. It's difficult to peg these kind of stakes on a Week 0 game against a Mountain West opponent, but it will be interesting to see if Thompson-Robinson can come out of the gates red hot and ready to live up to the hype.
Statistically, he very nearly reached those heights last year, posting the second-best passer rating in the conference with 156.3 and drastically improving his touchdown-to-interception ratio and ground production. However, he missed two and a half out of seven games and started for a team that owned a losing record.
Standing out on the stat sheet and in the win column could do wonders for Thompson-Robinson this weekend, especially considering how few games are going to be played. There's a real argument to be made for Thompson-Robinson being the best quarterback suiting up for any of the 10 active FBS teams Saturday, and if he can score a handful of touchdowns with over 300 yards, he can get his time in the spotlight ahead of what projects to be an integral senior season for the dynamic dual-threat.
Warmup game or statement game?
Kelly will be the first to tell you that every team tries to win every game, every week.
Although he may fall short of that goal more times than he would like, Kelly is definitely right. UCLA will be playing for the win, without a doubt, no matter the circumstance.
One question remains, however – what will the Bruins do if they're running away with it late?
They could easily keep their foot on the gas, run the score and put the nation on notice. Stats, margin of victory and other factors could weigh into bowl placement later in the year, should UCLA finish above .500, as well as polling.
However, LSU is coming to town the following week. There is a slight chance that if the Bruins are holding a healthy lead, they may simplify things a bit so as not to give the Tigers' coaching staff too much game film ahead of the matchup. There's also the possibility that UCLA starts to rest players to keep them fresh for that LSU game.
This is all hypothetical of course, since Hawaii is a good team that deserves all the focus this weekend and could very easily keep the game close or even win. Still, a wandering eye may lead to Kelly keeping things basic to better help his team in the long run, should it come to that.