Not that I ever would criticize anyone for advertising in a newspaper, but some of the worst-spent money in the history of college athletics involved UCLA’s buying valuable space in 2008 to declare, “The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over.”
Rick Neuheisel, then UCLA’s newly hired coach, was pictured prominently in those ads. Four years later, following a 50-0 loss to USC, Neuheisel was fired. So here comes another crosstown rivalry game and, wouldn’t you know, the Trojans’ reign over L.A. actually will be threatened Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl.
The Pac-12’s other first-year coaches — Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, Arizona State’s Todd Graham and Washington State’s Mike Leach — have received more attention at various points, for right and wrong reasons. UCLA’s Jim Mora rather quietly is doing the best work of any of them, and he should be voted the conference’s coach of the year if he can beat USC and advance to the Pac-12 championship game.
The USC-UCLA winner will clinch the South division title. In UCLA’s case, that would be a legitimate achievement — unlike last season, when the Bruins went 5-4 and were awarded the championship only because USC (7-2) was ineligible. UCLA also needed Utah to lose to lowly Colorado on the final weekend.
This time, UCLA (8-2) is slightly ahead of USC (7-3) in the polls and the BCS standings, and the teams should match up about evenly. UCLA is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in total offense with redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and running back Johnathan Franklin; USC is No. 4 with senior quarterback Matt Barkley and receiver Marqise Lee. USC is No. 7 in the conference in total defense; UCLA is No. 8.
Mora, a former NFL head coach with Atlanta and Seattle, has tried to establish consistency — “eliminate the ups and downs, rely on the process, build routine, create the right mindset,” he said.
It seems to be working. The Bruins lost some steam after falling to Oregon State and California, but they’ve responded with wins over Arizona State and Arizona to emerge as the South leader with a 5-2 conference record.
USC has endured much more turbulence this season, mainly because of higher expectations. The Trojans have fallen far from national championship consideration, losing to Stanford, Arizona and Oregon, while controversy keeps popping up in the program. The latest episode involved a student manager’s firing for deflating USC’s footballs against Oregon, making them easier to throw and catch.
Through it all, the Trojans still can win the South title and presumably earn a rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, with a Rose Bowl berth available.
“We screwed a couple games up, obviously, and none of us wanted our record to be where it is,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said.
But facing UCLA and Notre Dame, perhaps followed by Oregon, puts USC into almost a playoff situation for a prestigious bowl bid. “From that perspective,” Kiffin said, “it’s a good place to be, and a lot to play for.”
There’s also a monopoly to protect.