Surging Bruins begin road back to Pac-12 title game

LOS ANGELES -- It's time for Pac-12 play to start for the No. 19 UCLA Bruins, which means it's time for UCLA to begin its defense of the Pac-12 South Division crown.

What's that? You forgot about UCLA winning the Pac-12 South last season?

Well, you aren't the only one. Bruins' safety Tevin McDonald, generally one of the coolest customers on the team, cracked a smile and shook his head when reminded that the Bruins were beginning defense of their crown when they face Oregon State Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

Receiver Joseph Fauria, asked if he felt like the team had a target on its back, let out a hearty, sarcastic laugh.

"I guess you could say that," Fauria said. "I forgot about it because we’re a totally different team and I forgot about it because we got in the back door."

Actually, they got in through the back door and then needed to open a secret trap door.

In one of the biggest upsets in the conference last season, Utah lost to Colorado in the final week of the regular season, giving UCLA second place in the conference by virtue of a tie breaker over Arizona State.

Then, as the second-place team, UCLA was awarded the South Division crown and a spot in the Pac-12 title game because USC, which finished ahead of the Bruins in the standings and defeated UCLA, 50-0, was under sanctions and ineligible for the division title.

With a convoluted route like that, it's no wonder it has slipped the minds of the players.

"We all knew the rules of how you could get into the championship last year," McDonald said. "So, yeah, it kind of feels like we are champs, but we're also still hungry to have a better season than we did last year."

So far, they are off on the right foot. The Bruins (3-0) have created a bit of a buzz on the national college football scene with their hot start. They moved into the national rankings for the first time in four years and will be looking to get to 4-0 for the first time since 2005, when they started 8-0 with Maurice Jones-Drew at running back.

They are currently ahead of USC (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) in the standings, have a Heisman candidate in running back Johnathan Franklin and a freshman quarterback in Brett Hundley who has statistical numbers equal to or better than those of projected first-round draft pick Matt Barkley at USC.

In other words, they are playing like a team that could actually earn a berth in the conference championship game without any asterisk, but the hot start won't add up to much if UCLA can't keep it going in conference play.

The Bruins have struggled to do that in recent years. Since 1998, the last time UCLA won the conference title, the Bruins have won more than five conference games only once. From 2008-2010, UCLA averaged 2.7 conference victories and finished eighth, eighth and ninth in the standings.

Coach Jim Mora is only in his first season and while he preaches a philosophy of looking at each game the same way he acknowledged that there was a little bit more urgency with going into conference play after three non-conference games.

"I don’t think you can deny the fact that conference games are very important," Mora said. "But that’s not something we talk to the team about. We talk to the team about maintaining a consistent level of preparation and play regardless of who we are playing."

Mora, who spent 25 years in the NFL before landing at UCLA, likened the feeling of a conference game to playing a division rival in the NFL.

"I guess what makes them maybe more intense is that there is familiarity," Mora said. "You develop some rivalries. I’m excited to play these guys. I’m excited to see what it’s like to play in a Pac-12 game."

He should be, because for a UCLA program that is trying to take the next step toward national credibility, winning conference games is a big step. The Bruins don't get a whole lot of respect for playing in the 2011 conference title game because of the way they got in. This year, they hope to gain back some of that respect and doing so starts with the first conference game on Saturday.

"With the Pac-12 opener, you want to try and make a statement," cornerback Sheldon Price said. "All everybody knows is UCLA being soft so we have to continue to show that we aren’t that same team anymore."

It's not often that you hear players talking about not wanting to be the same team they were when they won a division crown, but that just tells you that the Bruins aren't exactly bragging to their buddies about the title.

"I guess we are still are technically the champs of last year and you can’t deny the fact that we played in the first Pac-12 championship game ever," Fauria said. "But we aren’t the same team as we were last year. We have a different offense, a different defense and a different mindset.

"I guess we have that in the past, but we’re not really looking back, we’re looking forward rather than into the past and we're trying to get to the second Pac-12 championship game."

Presumably through the front door this time.