At worst, UCLA will improve two games from coach Rick Neuheisel's first season to his second, but if the Bruins knock off their hated rival USC on Saturday that would feel like much more than a three-game improvement.
It would feel like the football monopoly in Los Angeles is, if not over, certainly threatened.
The Bruins are still trying to figure out how they might end up in a bowl game if they finish seventh in the Pac-10, which has only six bowl contracts.
A win over the struggling but still formidable Trojans certainly would boost their Q-rating among bowls looking for a team.
So there are big stakes in this fierce rivalry game.
Seemed like a good time to check in with Neuheisel and see what's shaking in Westwood.
You started 3-0. Lost five in a row. And now have won three in a row. What happened with the fast start, the lull and recovery?
Rick Neuheisel: Great beginning. Kids really believing in what we were coaching. Got lucky to have some turnovers go our way in the Tennessee game in a raucous environment. It was a great win for our program. The Kansas State game, we played well enough to win but really weren't on all cylinders as an offense. Then we ran into a fivesome of teams in this Pac-10 that were really good. We were not on all cylinders as an offense to keep pace. The one game we played really well on offense was against Cal and uncharacteristically we had a very poor defensive first half when we gave up 35 points. So we found ourselves outside looking in. But in the final quarter against Oregon State in Corvallis, we kind of found ourselves as an offense, or our quarterback [Kevin Prince] found himself. That has translated into more confidence across the board and not just for our offense but certainly for our defense, which now knows our offense can go out and score. So we found a way to get three wins here in a row and we have a little bit more confidence, which is imperative as we head into our contest with USC.
Is Kevin Prince your quarterback or will he face a full-on challenge from Richard Brehaut this spring?
RN: He's going to face a challenge from Richard Brehaut, but I think he has earned the right to be the quarterback until unseated. He's done enough to prove he belongs in there. But Richard Brehaut is going to come after him with everything he's got, which is going to make both players better. That's exactly what you need. As most teams in this conference have found out, you're going to need two and sometimes more quarterbacks to be a championship team.
What have you been happy with this season?
RN: I'm very pleased with the momentum of the program. I think we've got a bunch of great young guys doing the things that we want them to do. There are always going to be a couple of kids who are going to challenge you with respect to not toeing the line. But we've dealt with that and dealt with it quickly and made sure the expectations have not dipped. I think the program is on solid footing and I believe with respect to this upcoming recruiting class, we have a chance to hit another home run and get this thing back to where it belongs -- a program that can be talking about championship runs and so forth.
What has disappointed you?
RN: That five-game losing streak was a tough thing. I didn't see that coming. I knew we were playing five good teams, but I didn't see that we'd be on a slide that entire time. To go through that was difficult, but it tested our mettle. I think in some ways it made us stronger. I think we will always be able to point to it when adversity strikes. It's about how you deal with adversity.
A lot was made of a seeming conflict with you and Norm Chow over handling the quarterbacks this year. First, were you guys in disagreement and, second, how would you characterize your relationship?
RN: I think our relationship before and after is outstanding. We didn't agree on that. Norm has been up-front with me all along that he thinks that Kevin Prince is our quarterback and that Richard shouldn't be forced in there before he is ready and so forth. I was of the mind that Kevin needed to have a different perspective and see it from the sidelines and realize that when you're in there, you have to be ready to be in there, and that Richard, because we were playing him his freshman year, needed more chances to mature. I think both philosophies are right. I really do. I think you can make arguments for both. Since I had my hand over the top of the handle of the bat at the end, I got my way. But I certainly respect Norm Chow's opinion on quarterbacking. I think he is as advertised as an offensive coordinator. I love working with him on a daily basis.
Looking at USC on film, what do you see?
RN: I see a great bunch of talented athletes that aren't impostors wearing that uniform. I think are definitely a top-top opponent and we are going to have to play our best to stay close and get this game into the fourth quarter.
Have then looked like a different team in recent weeks while they are struggling vs. earlier in the season when they were winning?
RN: I just think they have played some unique teams. When you watch them against Oregon, that's a hard game to play, especially in Eugene. With [quarterback Jeremiah] Masoli being as dynamic as he has been, that's a hard offense to stop. And remember they are replacing a huge amount of their front-seven on defense. That was going to be difficult, not to mention they are playing, as we are, a freshman quarterback. And then when you watch them against Stanford, the Toby Gerhart train, that isn't the first place it's stopped. It's had its way with a lot of teams in this conference. You just have to be able to score with Stanford. The teams that have had great offensive days have managed to do it. The teams that struggled on offense don't. And it can get away from you because it's a time-of-possession thing you have to handle. So I don't put much stock in those games. I think this is a very proud program that is going to play its tail off on Saturday.
Do you feel like you are gaining ground in recruiting vs. USC?
RN: I feel like we're gaining ground in recruiting. I don't like to say vs. USC, because I'm not recruiting against anybody. I'm just going out to get the very best and the very brightest and showing them what I think is a premier institution in all the land. Certainly, if you are in that category of best and brightest, you're going to have a lot of top choices. I know that 'SC would be one of those choices. But we just talk about what we're doing here, what can be here, what has been here and why it's such a great opportunity for the ultimate college experience.
As you fight to close the gap with USC, do you anticipate things getting more contentious with the Trojans?
RN: I'm absolutely sure of it. The two programs are too proud, they have too many assets for it to be one-sided. It will absolutely become contentious again. But I mean that in a respectful way.
So, if you are beating USC by 27 points late in the fourth quarter, will you go for 2?
RN: [Laughs] I'm going to leave that answer blank. No, I will not go for two.