Point: UCLA’s high-powered recruiting and budding star quarterback Brett Hundley make the Bruins USC’s stiffest challenge going forward.
The week leading up to the annual USC-UCLA football game is always chock-full of (mostly) friendly banter between the two schools. In recent seasons, the pregame narrative has involved the Trojans’ win streak against the Bruins and expectations for another easy USC win regardless of whether the venue is the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl.
But not this year.
UCLA is actually ranked higher than USC in the BCS standings for the first time in a while. The Bruins have one fewer loss than the Trojans and sit atop the Pac-12 South with an 8-2 record. And they enter Saturday’s crosstown matchup only two weeks removed from a 66-10 shellacking of an Arizona squad that beat the Trojans earlier in the season.
Whether Trojans fans want to admit it or not, the Rick Neuheisel era is over. New coach Jim Mora has done a masterful job of putting the Bruins back into contention, and there’s no reason to think that UCLA won’t be USC’s chief rival in the Pac-12 South for the foreseeable future.
There’s almost no possible rationale to lead college football viewers to assume this season is a fluke for UCLA. Other than a bizarre blowout loss against the Golden Bears on Oct. 6 — akin to USC’s 43-22 defeat at the hands of the Sun Devils in 2011 — the Bruins have taken care of business against a wide variety of opponents. Their schedule hasn’t been as challenging as USC’s thus far, but with matchups against the Trojans and Cardinal coming up, the Bruins could put themselves in the conversation to be a top-10 BCS team.
Even in the more realistic scenario in which UCLA falls to USC and/or Stanford, it will still be leaps and bounds ahead of where it previously was. The Bruins have a redshirt freshman quarterback, Brett Hundley, who has thrown for 2,739 yards to go with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also has nearly 300 rushing yards and an additional six touchdowns. Assuming Hundley only gets better, the Bruins automatically have a leg up on most of the Pac-12 South with an established quarterback capable of putting up big numbers.
The loss of senior running back Johnathan Franklin after the season obviously hurts, but it’s not a deal-breaker. The Bruins have a deep recruiting class coming in, currently ranked No. 18 in the country according to ESPN. That pales in comparison to USC, currently ranked No. 1, but it is ahead of Pac-12 teams such as Washington (No. 19) and even Oregon (No. 23).
That influx of talent, coupled with a weak group of opponents in the Pac-12 South makes UCLA the easy choice to become USC’s top competitor moving forward. Arizona is set to lose senior quarterback Matt Scott and will have to fall back on star running back Ka’Deem Carey. Though still capable of staying afloat, the Wildcats have been incredibly inconsistent in coach Rich Rodriguez’s first season in Tucson. He’s done an admirable job of getting Arizona in the mix against ranked opponents, but that rebuilding process needs a little more time.
Arizona State, meanwhile, hasn’t posted a winning record since 2007, and Utah and Colorado are still working out the kinks to keep up in the Pac-12.
That means UCLA is the de facto choice here. I’m not convinced the Bruins are capable of upending USC in their individual matchup, this year included, but that doesn’t mean they won’t post a similar record on a yearly basis. And considering how lopsided the battle for Los Angeles has been in recent years, maybe a little parity is just what’s needed to spice this rivalry up again.
Counterpoint: Despite UCLA’s successful season, Arizona and Arizona State are better positioned to challenge USC because of their proven coaching.
At present, it would be difficult to argue that a team other than UCLA poses the biggest threat to USC going forward in the Pac-12 South, primarily because UCLA currently sits alone at first place in the division. The two teams will battle it out this weekend to decide who will go to the conference championship game, but beyond that, has this division become a two-horse race between the Bruins and the Trojans? Hardly.
What has UCLA done to warrant the honor of being USC’s most significant challenger in the South going forward? Other than posting an undefeated record in divisional play and accruing a ranking one spot higher than USC in the BCS, not much. On the surface, it seems like these two teams are set to duke it out over the course of the next few years to assert dominance over the division, but I wouldn’t be so quick to discount the South’s other teams.
Coming into this season, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State were all breaking in new coaches, and expectations were relatively low heading into 2012. After 12 weeks of football, it appears that each new coach has his team on the right track, as they have all exceeded expectations. UCLA and Arizona are both bowl eligible, and Arizona State, which started 5-1, should earn eligibility this week with a win against a woeful Washington State team. The Sun Devils have also addressed disciplinary and team chemistry issues that plagued the team a year ago. All three programs appear to be headed in the right direction, but the question is: Which team’s success is the most sustainable?
The answer is not UCLA. One thing the Arizona schools have that UCLA doesn’t is a head coach with a record of building a successful program. Arizona State coach Todd Graham sported a 36-17 record and three bowl victories in his four seasons at Tulsa, and finished his last season with the school ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press poll. Despite Arizona State’s current four-game losing streak, the team does not appear to be falling apart like last season’s team did. The effort is not lacking, and Graham appears to have successfully changed the culture that was left in former coach Dennis Erickson’s wake.
Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez has an even more impressive resume. In 2001, his first season as coach of West Virginia, the Mountaineers went 3-8. After that, Rodriguez’s squad never posted fewer than eight wins in a season, and in his final three years in Morgantown his team won two BCS bowl games and finished in the top 10. His tenure at Michigan was nowhere near as successful, but that could be attributed in part to the incredible amount of pressure that the Michigan job entails. Though the people of Tucson love their Wildcats, Ann Arbor is in a completely different league in terms of college football fervor.
This brings us to UCLA and first-year head coach Jim Mora. Mora’s track record as a head coach is brief: He’s coached four seasons in the NFL as a head coach (three with Atlanta and one with Seattle). During that span, his team’s record worsened each season. The Falcons went 11-5 in 2004, but went 8-8 and 7-9 the next two seasons before Mora was eventually fired. After a 5-11 season with the Seahawks, Mora was fired again. In addition, Mora has a shown a penchant for shooting his mouth off, as evidenced by his insensitive and ignorant comments following the tragic shootings near USC’s campus last summer and his more recent remarks after an apparent USC fan posed as a UCLA player on Twitter. Those kinds of slip-ups are tolerable when your team is 8-2. But on a struggling team? Athletic directors have been known to have far less patience.
I know the Bruins are undefeated in the Pac-12 South, including an annihilation of Arizona, but each of these new coaches was hired to change the culture of their respective teams and to create sustainable, consistent success. Rodriguez and Graham have shown they can do that; Mora has not as much. This season, I would argue that USC’s biggest threat in the Pac-12 South has been itself, but going forward, I’ll put my money on the two coaches who have proven themselves rather than the guy who believes a Twitter imposter should be imprisoned.