Oh by the way, UCLA has a game this weekend.
Amid all the commotion surrounding the firing of coach Rick Neuheisel this week, it’s easy to forget the Bruins are preparing to play Oregon Friday in the Pac-12 championship game.
Yes, the team with the coach who just got fired is playing for a championship. And that fired coach isn’t really fired until after coaching the team in that game. Those are just some of the bizarre circumstances hovering over the inaugural Pac-12 title game, which is otherwise known as the Kinda-Sorta Bowl.
UCLA is the team that kinda-sorta has a coach and kinda-sorta qualified to play for the championship in a game it kinda-sorta has a chance to win.
Well, maybe that last one is a bit of a stretch. UCLA probably has as much chance to win as Sonny Corleone had at the tollbooth.
But that only adds to the bizarreness of a title game that probably isn’t exactly the scenario the Pac-12 had in mind when it split into two divisions and created a title game.
“It’s a strange situation all together because in all honesty we’re really not supposed to be here and our coach got fired so he’s not going to be here,” UCLA receiver Randall Carroll said. “I guess it’s a real crazy situation.”
UCLA (6-6, 5-4) is in the game despite finishing with the sixth-best overall record in the Pac-12 simply because it plays in the weaker South Division and USC (10-2, 7-2) is not eligible. The Bruins are coming off a 50-0 loss to the Trojans -- a loss so bad it was the final straw in getting Neuheisel fired -- and will take the field as underdogs of more than four touchdowns against a team that beat them 60-13 last season.
But UCLA’s backdoor entry and one-foot-out-the-door coach aren’t the only odd entities associated with the game. UCLA’s bowl situation is another.
Should UCLA lose as expected, the Bruins would lose bowl eligibility as a result of having a losing record. Now if the Bruins hadn’t advanced to the conference title game, they wouldn’t be faced with that situation because they’d be 6-6, but the way things stand has forced UCLA to seek an NCAA waiver that would allow it to play in a bowl as a 6-7 team.
North Texas in 2001 is the only team to play in a bowl game with a losing record, according to ESPN’s research department. The Mean Green finished the regular season 5-6 that year, but won the Sun Belt Conference to earn a berth in the Sun Bowl, which they lost.
Should UCLA lose the conference championship game and advance to a bowl game and lose that, the Bruins would have the dubious honor of becoming the first team to finish a season with a 6-8 record.
“We’re bowl eligible,” said offensive coordinator Mike Johnson, who would take over as interim coach for any bowl game should the NCAA grant the waiver. “You take away the Pac-12 championship game and we’re 6-6 and you go to a bowl game because you’ve earned the right to go to a bowl game. I think this team does deserve it.”
It probably does simply because it doesn’t really deserve to be in the Pac-12 title game. UCLA lost conference games by such scores as 45-19, 48-12, 31-6 and 50-0, with three of those losses coming in the last six games.
UCLA has been outscored, 370-278, this season and has no victories over Pac-12 teams with winning records in conference play.
“It’s a little weird,” quarterback Kevin Prince said. “We would have preferred to make the championship game by winning it outright, but at the same time the opportunity has presented itself where we get the opportunity to redeem ourselves and redeem our season and did what we set out to do which is win a Pac-12 championship.”
It would be difficult to find anyone who gives UCLA much of a chance at winning the title. Oregon, No. 9 in the BCS standings, is a national power that is third in the nation in scoring and sixth in total offense. Its machine gun style of play is a nightmare for an opponent, particularly a ball-control team such as UCLA.
The Bruins have scored 46 points zero times this season. Oregon averages 46 points.
“We’re going to have to play -- I know there is no such thing as a perfect game but we’re going to have to get darn close,” Neuheisel said.
The Bruins see it as a no-lose situation and believe that makes them more dangerous. Neuheisel said he would go “deep, deep, deep into the playbook” and the players seem relaxed knowing that they will not have to suffer the wrath of their coach should they miss an assignment or two.
“We’re going out there with nothing to lose,” defensive lineman Datone Jones said. “We can mess up 100 times and we have nothing to lose at all. It’s going to make us more aggressive.”
All the strange circumstances surrounding the team as it heads to the game certainly are a topic of conversation on the UCLA practice field, but the fact of the matter is that UCLA is going to play Oregon on Friday and the Pac-12 title will be on the line.
“No matter how we got there or what’s going on with our team, it doesn’t matter,” defensive lineman Cassius Marsh said. “These are the cards we were dealt. We’ve had a rough season, it’s no secret. But we’re there, we’re in the championship game and that’s what matters so we’re going to do everything we can to win it.”