High-Stakes USC-UCLA Game Could Rejuvenate Rivalry


The USC-UCLA rivalry will resume this afternoon with everything a nostalgic Trojan or Bruin fan could hope for. Hopefully, it’s the shot in the arm that Los Angeles’s grand rivalry has so desperately needed.

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Not only will it be the first afternoon game at the Coliseum in which both teams will wear their home colors since 1981, but it comes with stakes. The Rose Bowl is on the line.

Or more specifically, the Pac-12 South is up for grabs in a one-game take-all on the last week of the season for the first time ever. In 2012, the game decided the division winner, but it wasn’t quite like this, as UCLA still played Stanford the following week to end the regular season.

Today is a City Championship with playoff-level stakes. It’s what everyone has clamored for for years, and yet it comes at an interesting time in the rivalry.

Before the season, USC and UCLA looked to be on a crash course of epic proportions. Both teams were highly ranked in the preseason at 8th and 13th respectively, and each entered the year with playoff expectations.

Today feels special. And this rivalry –or more accurately ‘this series of massive disappointment’– almost never feels special.

The knock on USC was replacing guys like Leonard Williams, Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor, while UCLA was saddled with pundits not trusting the season being in the hands of a true freshman quarterback.

Yet here we are, months later and the rivals find themselves going toe to toe, mostly even by metrics, stats and eye tests, but in equal opposite levels of uncertainty.

UCLA’s highly touted is depth on defense has been thrown out the window along with all of Myles Jack’s equipment. USC is without it’s golden boy head coach, who is somewhere in a top-secret treatment facility after being fired for his off-field antics.

November 22, 2014; Pasadena, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans wide receiver Adoree’ Jackson (2) runs the ball against the UCLA Bruins during the first half at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

All we really know about these two teams is that true freshman Josh Rosen is the real deal, and both Ronald Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster have made the conference forget about the existence of Allen and Agholor.

So, USC and UCLA find themselves entering the Coliseum this afternoon one win away from rematches with northern rival Stanford, despite each having unimpressive 5-3 records in Pac-12 play.

PODCAST: Previewing Saturday’s USC-UCLA Battle

Somehow, someway,  that’s a good thing. Because today feels special. And this rivalry –or more accurately ‘this series of massive disappointment’– almost never feels special.

It’s been nearly 25 years since the rivalry mattered.

The epic battles between Larry Smith and Terry Donohue featured everything that was right about the series. There were late-game heroics, back and forth struggles, big stages and Rose Bowls on the line.

The 1988 matchup saw USC win a game in which both teams were ranked in the Top 10. Todd Marinovich found Johnnie Morton at the buzzer in 1990. Two years later, the Bruins’ fifth-string walk-on quarterback John Barnes got the better of the Trojans by a point.

Since then, the series has been anything but exciting. Not since 2006 has there been a game decided by a touchdown or less, and it’s only happened three times since 1997.

Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Southern California Trojans interim coach Clay Helton before a NCAA football game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Even the 2000 game, which was decided on a David Bell field goal in the final minute, was virtually meaningless. The teams combined to win just 11 games that year.

It’s been a rivalry full of streaks and beat downs. UCLA won eight-straight from 1991 to 1998, followed by USC taking 12 of the next 13. Currently, the Bruins have won the last three by an average margin of victory of more than 16 points.

Any way you slice it, that’s not fun. That’s not exciting. That’s not gripping.

USC fans practically got bored with winning the rivalry during the Carroll era, while UCLA fans resorted to more grim levels of apathy.

It’s why the Battle for the Victory Bell isn’t up there with the Iron Bowl or The Game. Those games don’t need stakes to be compelling or competitive like USC vs. UCLA does.

Fast forward back to this week and the Trojans have an opportunity to make rivalry mean something again.

A loss would give Jim Mora four-straight wins over USC, albeit against four different head coaches.

And while the recruiting aspect to the rivalry has been one of the most overblown narratives in college football, you can’t help but feel like this is truly the Bruins’ opportunity to take a stranglehold.

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The Trojans are without a permanent head coach, and for the first time since Mora got to Westwood, are entrenched in recruiting battles with UCLA over local five-star recruits like Mique Juarez and Oluwole Betiku.

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Joey Kaufman of the Orange County Register wrote this week that coaching uncertainty is a big culprit to the cyclical nature of the rivalry, leading to the long streaks.

USC can’t let another long streak happen.

They never beat Brett Hundley. A win on Saturday makes sure that can never be said of Josh Rosen. But more importantly, a win over UCLA allows the Trojans to nip so much of the Bruins’ momentum in the bud.

For a team without a coach and with an athletic director with approval ratings lower than a second-term president, that matters.

Maybe, just maybe a USC win would make the rivalry matter for more than just today.

If nothing else, the city needs the stakes-filled showdown to live up to the hype and inject a little life into the long-stagnant rivalry.