UCLA-Stanford deserves equal billing in Bay Area

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

The vogue -- and slightly snarky -- question among Pac-10 football fans this week is which Bay Area matchup truly is must-see TV on Saturday?

Is it No. 7 USC at No. 24 California, the ballyhooed showdown between two preseason conference favorites who both already got their faces bloodied by presumed conference underdogs?

Or is it the game that will be played in leafy, pricey Palo Alto, a matchup between the conference's only unbeaten team -- 3-0 UCLA -- and Stanford, which sits atop the standings with a 2-0 mark in Pac-10 play?

Hard to say. The winner of the former announces its reemergence. The winner of the latter announces its arrival.

But UCLA's always colorful inside linebacker Reggie Carter isn't so sure his Bruins want your love. Sure, they've pushed three opponents around. Sure, they will equal their 2008 win total with their next victory.

Just don't rank them, said Carter.

"No! Leave me at the bottom of the barrel," he said. "We've seen what happens to teams up in the rankings. Cal goes up in the rankings and what happened? They lost. They put Washington in the Top 25? They lost. I think everybody feeds you all that candy and ice cream and you get excited and you lose focus. So leave me unranked. Just tell me we're a terrible team. Don't give us any respect. Let us earn it. I don't want guys to get excited and happy -- 'Oh, yeah, we're ranked!' As soon as you lose, you'll be unranked. So let's not be ranked. Let's just try to win every week."

Of course, Carter also wrote a few amusing sonnets for reporters about the magical wonderfulness of Tennessee before the Bruins defense throttled the Volunteers, so it's likely that Carter was just doing what he normally does: Answering a reporter's question with a twinkle in his eye.

But Stanford running back Toby Gerhart gets no such twinkle.

"You've got to get bodies on him," Carter said. "He's a strong guy. Everybody's got to do their job. Stay in their gap, then gang tackle him. Keep him closed in and don't let him get into the open field and get one-on-one with our DBs."

Gerhart wins most of those one-on-one battles beyond the line of scrimmage. He's 6-foot-1, 237 pounds and he has better speed that he's often given credit for. He presently ranks third in the nation with 129 yards rushing per game.

Which raises a question: Should he be a rising Heisman Trophy candidate?

"Yes, I believe so," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He's a shining star on our team."

Carter and Gerhart are both All-American candidates. And the matchup of their units could be one of the most physical of the season anywhere.

The Bruins rank ninth in the nation in run defense (74.33 yards per game) and Stanford, despite starting two redshirt freshmen on its line, ranks 11th in the nation in run offense (233.75 ypg).

"You better put on your big-boy pads," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "They come at you. They make no bones about it. They come at you and say they can win in the trenches."

The admiration is mutual.

"This is the best defensive line we've played, no question about it," Harbaugh said. "This is the best three linebackers we've played against. And this is the best secondary we've played against. Without a doubt, this is the best defense we've played against."

So that's the headlining, strength-on-strength matchup. Perhaps even more telling will be how the Bruins offense handles itself against the Cardinal defense. Both units are improved from last year. Neither, at present, will scare anybody.

Kevin Craft will make his second consecutive start at quarterback in place of Kevin Prince, who's out at least another week with a broken jaw. Craft, much maligned as the starter last year, had his best game against Stanford in 2008, completing 23 of 39 passes for 285 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Despite being sacked seven times, Craft had enough gas in the tank to lead the Bruins on a 10-play, 87-yard drive for the game-winning touchdown in the waning moments.

"From my perspective, and I've watched him a lot, I believe he's their best quarterback," Harbaugh said.

Neuheisel was asked which Bay Area game was the biggest. Not surprisingly, he professed that nearly all of his attention will be focused inside Stanford Stadium.

The Pac-10 won't be about one big game this year. Playing a round-robin schedule in what might be the nation's deepest conference means every game will be big.

"Every week is a fight," Harbaugh said. "We're real aware of how good the Pac-10 is."