Bruin football gathers steam

Think about it for a moment. In all sincerity, do you, at present, feel comfortable with the state of USC’s football program? Are you confident its trajectory points upward? Do its best days, in fact, lie ahead?

Are you absolutely confident in a head coach that flirts with the ethical line for the sake of maintaining a so-called competitive advantage? Are you confident NCAA sanctions won’t leave more than a scratch on the windshield?

Don’t answer yet. Sit. Think about it all for at least another minute or two.

Now again, do you, in all honesty, view this season as the stepping stone to something higher?

It’s rivalry week in Los Angeles, where the annual crosstown showdown pits the city’s two premier college football programs against each other on the gridiron. USC and UCLA square off at the Rose Bowl on Saturday afternoon in a nationally televised showdown. So we ask ourselves these questions as a State-of-the-Union-like examination. And perhaps, ever since UCLA forecasted five years ago the end of Los Angeles’ football monopoly with the now-infamous poster of former coach Rick Neuheisel, we look at this same old topic all the more intently. Who has the upper hand? Is Los Angeles cardinal, or is it blue?

Recent results illustrate the obvious. It’s been an ’SC town, at least lately. The Trojans have won 12 of the last 13 games against UCLA and have been serious contenders for the conference and national title for much of the last decade. Arguing otherwise — especially in the wake of last season’s 50-0 shellacking at the Coliseum — seems pointless.

But mind you, this marks the first time since 2001 that UCLA, No. 17, is ranked higher than USC, No. 18. And the Bruins sport the better record to boot at 8-2 overall.

“He’s ranked ahead of us in his first year,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said of the Bruins’ freshman head coach, Jim Mora, during Sunday night’s teleconference with reporters. “He’s doing really well over there.”

The records to this point don’t suggest too much, but they do highlight a rather evident trend: These two teams are as close as they’ve been in recent memory.

For years we’ve been wondering if UCLA would ever gain some sort of an upper hand in a rivalry that’s stayed particularly one-sided since the turn of the century. Now that the Bruins hold the advantage in the national rankings, we must recognize the significance of what a UCLA win over USC would be come Saturday: It would tip the scale in the direction of Westwood. It’d serve as a springboard for Mora and Co., while marking an irreparably disappointing 2012 season for Kiffin’s bunch.

Kiffin, during his short tenure at USC, has been hampered by one controversy and one road block after another. Less than six months on the job, the program was hit with sanctions, then he was the target of a lawsuit filed by the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. In year two, an assistant coach resigned following ties to street agent Willie Lyles, the center of an NCAA probe. And in year three, the year the program was expected to take the defining leap, too much attention has been wasted on off-the-field distractions such as Kiffin storming out of a press conference, the jersey switching and the scolding for deflating game balls.

If anything, UCLA seems to have karma working in its favor.

On this side of town, the Trojans are  also set to face some pressing challenges in the next couple years. Their next two recruiting classes will be smaller by a combined 20 fewer players, leaving those players free to enroll elsewhere — say, at UCLA.

And many of the apparent on-the-field problems during Kiffin’s tenure have only lingered: poor tackling, poor game management and an inability to contain spread offenses still plague the team.

These are real challenges USC faces in the final stretch of 2012, and heading into next year, these same challenges won’t disappear. At some point, they’ll need to be tackled, but it doesn’t bode well considering they’ve only been accentuated in recent months and seemingly made worse.

The fact of the matter remains: USC, which carries just one victory over a team with a winning record after 10 games, has underachieved. UCLA, meanwhile, with Mora at the helm, has found a new dynamic quarterback in redshirt freshman Brett Hundley and has moved within grasp of a 10-win season, while using many of the same players that were a part of last season’s debacle versus USC. So yeah, by comparison, the Bruins have overachieved.

There is plenty at stake: Whoever wins Saturday clinches a spot in the Pac-12 title game as the South representative. There is plenty that can change the flavor of the rivalry. There is plenty to suggest the programs are walking in different directions.

Streaks don’t last forever.


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