LOS ANGELES -- First-year UCLA Bruins coach Jim Mora couldn’t have picked a better year for his initial experience with the UCLA-USC rivalry.
The teams will meet on Saturday in the annual crosstown showdown with added emphasis: The Pac-12 South Division title is on the line. The Bruins (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) hold a half-game lead over the USC Trojans (7-3, 5-3) in the division standings, so the winner will advance to the Pac-12 title game.
The teams played games in 2007 and ’05 with conference title implications, but other teams also were involved in those races. Last year’s game was for the Pac-12 South title, as well, but UCLA had already clinched the title game spot by virtue of USC being banned from postseason play.
Considering all that, you could argue this is the first time since 1993 the UCLA-USC rivalry game carries such clear-cut, winner-take-all drama. It will only add to the circus atmosphere that annually surrounds one of the country’s most intense football rivalries and make it difficult for Mora to stick with his mantra of treating every game the same.
“I think it’s a little bit different given the fact that these two universities sit so close together and this is a game that has a lot of ramifications in terms of the chance to go to the Pac-12 championship game,” Mora said.
“We’ll do all that we can to try to keep this week as normal as possible knowing that there’ll be some extra attention placed on this game.”
There also are plenty of high hopes for Bruins fans, who have suffered through UCLA losses to USC in 12 of the last 13 years, including five in a row. Last year’s 50-0 drubbing, the most lopsided rout by either team since before World War II, may still be on the minds of the UCLA faithful. This year’s squad offers new hope.
UCLA has a better 10-game record than USC for the first time since 2001. The Bruins are No. 17 in the BCS standings, a spot ahead of USC, and No. 17 in the Associated Press Poll, four positions in front of the Trojans. This is the first time since 2001 the teams will meet with UCLA ranked higher than USC and the first time since 2005 that both teams are ranked for their meeting.
The last time they met when both teams were ranked and UCLA was higher than USC was 1993. The Bruins, then No. 16, won that 1993 game, 27-21, over the No. 22 Trojans in a game that decided the Pac-12 champion and Rose Bowl representative. It also was the third consecutive UCLA victory in the series, a streak that would be extended to eight before the current run of USC dominance began.
Ending USC’s five-game streak in a game with conference title implications and staying ranked higher than USC would certainly be a sign this is once again a two-team town, though Mora said he doesn’t think one game can turn that trick.
“People use the term ‘turning the corner,’” Mora said. “I don’t think in competitive sports -- team sports anyway -- you ever turn the corner. I think it’s a long, windy, uphill road the entire way. I have always believed that each game is an entity unto itself.”
He acknowledged, however, that Saturday’s game against USC is special. Mora spent his career in the NFL before taking the UCLA job late last year and the nature of college rivalries has taken some getting used to.
When UCLA played California earlier this season, Mora said he didn’t even know the schools had a rivalry. In the pros, the rivalries are not nearly as personal and intense as they are in college, especially when compared with the UCLA-USC rivalry.
“It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen in college sports or pro sports,” Mora said. “I was trying to think of a rivalry that we had in pro football in all my time there and I don’t know that there was one that was of the significance of the one that we have versus USC.”
Especially when the stakes include much more than just bragging rights.