There are three things I’ve come to expect from Thanksgiving: mediocre football, passing out early and inane traditions.
Holiday traditions are still fun, but many are of spotty origins. We do them because we’re instructed to do so, and the rituals derive their meaning strictly from history.
It’s fitting, then, that the annual battle for Los Angeles falls on Thanksgiving weekend.
As an outsider from Washington DC, I’ve always had a hard time grasping the USC-UCLA rivalry. Then again, the rivalry is probably misunderstood by most people outside of California. Ivan Maisel called the cross-town showdown the most overrated rivalry in all of college football in his book, The Maisel Report.
But this year I’m warming up to the rivalry.
It’s an odd time to suddenly embrace the game and its traditions. The 7 p.m. kickoff bucks the trend of afternoon games and makes for the series’ second-latest start time.
The timing means that the game will be ignored on the national landscape, but the setup would have relegated the matchup to being an afterthought, anyway. USC enters the game with its lowest ranking since the end of the 2001 season, and UCLA elicits no more than local attention despite its progress.
But the lowered expectations actually give the game more meaning. This time around, the game’s outcome will go a long way toward determining each program’s future.
The consequences are dire as always for the Trojans. But this year, a loss to the Bruins would turn the season from disappointing to disastrous.
Past games against the Bruins have always represented an opportunity to close out on a BCS bowl, but this year’s match is a salvage mission. With a logjam in the Pac-10 standings, a single slip-up could mean the difference between the Holiday Bowl and the Poinsettia Bowl.
But there’s a bigger storyline at play here and it’s all about the Bruins.
Even in a rebuilding year for USC, UCLA still isn’t close to taking over the throne of the city’s top football team. The Bruins scraped together enough wins to be bowl eligible but are seventh in the Pac-10 pecking order and still need to boost their résumé for the postseason.
Remarkable progress has undoubtedly taken place in the last year in Westwood, Calif. But to snap their five-game losing streak, the Bruins had to go Dumpster diving in the Pac-10 standings for wins against Washington, Washington State and Arizona State.
Then again, the Huskies took down the Trojans and the Sun Devils nearly did, so there’s little reason for USC to puff its chest out on that point.
For all of the talk of the monopoly being over, though, USC still holds most of the properties, houses and hotels on the playing board that is Los Angeles.
But UCLA is still closing the gap, and only in part because of the USC’s regression this season. The Bruins are slowly but surely building themselves up, and a win against USC would be the ultimate selling point for coach Rick Neuheisel’s program.
Neuheisel has already earned several key victories on the local recruiting trail, including wide receiver Randall Carroll and tight end Morrell Presley.
And though the talent disparity still exists, the Bruins have more than a handful of players who would see significant time for USC.
With all of the program traditions that have come to an end this year, a loss to UCLA might be the breaking point for many Trojan followers. Many USC fans might be seeing red, but the last thing they would be able to stand would be seeing the Victory Bell painted blue.
USC coach Pete Carroll rarely gives meaning to anything beyond the game’s outcome, but these subplots don’t have to apply within his team to carry weight. Fans need storylines to stay engaged in a season that has been less than fulfilling. Otherwise, they make a beeline for the exit when the game turns sour like it did against Stanford.
Gunning for a bowl that takes place before New Year’s Day may seem foreign to USC fans, but all traditions are tenuous and can come to an end. It’s why the Trojans can’t take their tradition of dominance against the Bruins for granted.
If they do, the spirit around Heritage Hall will be decidedly less thankful on Sunday than it will be on Thursday.
“Tackling Dummy” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.