A lot riding on Battle of L.A.
UCLA, USC meet Saturday to determine the Pac-12 South
Twelve weeks ago, this game didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter that USC would have to load its players, its No.1 ranking and its star coach into busses and head 25 minutes north to square off against UCLA, the rival it’d beaten in 12 of the past 13 years.
But that’s why matchups on paper -- and prognostications and preseason votes -- carry as much meaning as a song lyric penned by Ke$ha.
Because, 12 weeks later, this game matters – and, for two coaches there’s more than just a win at stake.
USC's No. 1-ranking is gone. With it the invincible luster of Trojan teams past has floated away. And the team that will be waiting for them in the grassy pit deep in the bottom of the Rose Bowl is not the same one it was 12 weeks ago, or for the past 13 years. And there, the two teams will fight not just for city pride, but for a likely trip to the Pac-12 title game and for a leg up in a new rivalry between coaches who’ve led parallel lives and lean on youthful vigor as much as tactical acumen.
UCLA too, has a young coach, a once-rising star that fell, but is ascending again. Jim Mora coached an NFL team to the brink of the Super Bowl nearly a decade ago. And Mora did the same at his next job. However, time eroded memories of that early, fleeting success. This weekend, though, he has a chance to make us all remember. There’s a reason, after all, that UCLA has transformed from a team that averaged five wins a year under the last regime to one that has eight with, at least, three more to play. That reason is the head coach. Yes, he’s prone to gimmicks. Yes, he asked his assistants to wear “war paint” on their faces two weeks ago, but it’s hard to chuckle at the tactic when his team beat a talented opponent by 56.
Like UCLA football being lost in the glare of USC’s recent run of excellence, the offseason hiring of Mora, too, was obscured by the hype surrounding USC coach Lane Kiffin. By the age of 37, the Trojans’ head man has seen his name emblazoned on sports pages and scrolling along the bottom of TV screens far more than most coaches. Kiffin’s high-profile job at USC ensured that the headlines wouldn’t dissipate. And he’s performed admirably; luring top talent and winning 25 games in two-plus years amid NCAA sanctions is no simple task. But Kiffin’s fame, infamy, and his team’s inability to live up to lofty preseason expectations have largely overshadowed the works Mora has done this season.
Twelve weeks ago – perhaps even as you’re reading this now – you would’ve be surprised to find that Mora’s team enters the contest one game ahead of the Trojans and has a half-game lead in the race for the Pac-12 South title. Mora’s team, too, has a one-spot edge in the BCS rankings (UCLA is No. 17, USC No. 18). But, even so late in the season, those leads are razor-thin, making this first clash between the like-minded coaches all the more compelling.
Remember, both are sons of prominent former NFL coaches; both are keen on taking risks; both lean on exuberant, youthful motivation to propel their teams forward. They’re friendly, but admit they’re not friends. That they both landed in the same city, and will be the blood flowing through a venerable rivalry that badly needed to feel its heartbeat again, is a gift for those of us who enjoy the storylines that weave through the college football season as much as the games themselves. Despite three losses, many believe USC enters Saturday with the upper hand. But if Mora’s Bruins can push the Trojans to the brink or emerge as victors, we’ll have no choice but to take note of what’s drawing to a boil in Los Angeles.
There’s more than just a win, or a Pac-12 South crown, on the line on Saturday. The long-dormant rivalry between two schools will be renewed, and a new one between coaches – a rivalry that’s sure to be flush with bile and risk and enthusiasm – will be born.
Stanford coach David Shaw has an opportunity this week to step out of a pair of shadows as long as those cast by the redwoods near his campus. And he doesn’t even have to win. Stanford has the unenviable task of traveling up to Eugene, Ore., this week, where the Ducks have won 29 of their past 30. Jim Harbaugh, the coach who transformed Stanford into a national power by notching several signature wins against USC and by knocking off the mighty Ducks in 2009, has been gone for two years. Andrew Luck, the best quarterback to don a Cardinal uniform since John Elway, was the top pick in the most recent NFL Draft. Both are playing starring roles on teams that would be bound for the playoffs if the NFL season ended today. In their wake, the Stanford program hasn’t slipped under water, though many thought it might.
Shaw’s only losses in his first year came to No. 7 Oregon and No. 3 Oklahoma State. But that was with Luck – largely regarded as the best collegiate quarterback since Peyton Manning wore his first shade of orange. Without Luck, the Cardinal has slipped a little – the loss to Washington was unexpected and painful – but are still a dangerous team that plays smart, disciplined football. And their quarterback of the future, freshman Kevin Hogan, has finally been thrust under center. Last week, he won his first start against then-No. 11 Oregon State. Shaw and his young quarterback proved a lot against the Beavers, but can send an even louder message against Oregon. They don’t have to win, but they can’t roll over as so many teams have. They need to prove to the nation, and, maybe, to themselves, that Stanford isn’t just Harbaugh and Luck. If they do make the Ducks sweat (do ducks sweat?) we’ll know that the Cardinal isn’t going anywhere.
At a glance – looking at records, common opponents and remembering what I’ve seen on my TV screen – it seems a coin would be the best-equipped prognosticator for the Texas Tech-Oklahoma State matchup on Saturday. Texas Tech stands 23rd in the BCS, Oklahoma State 24th. Texas Tech’s signature wins have come against West Virginia and TCU. It suffered a close loss against Texas and it never really was in the game against Kansas State. Oklahoma State’s signature wins have come against West Virginia and TCU. It suffered a close-loss to Texas and it never really was in the game against Kansas State. Well, that didn’t help.
So we’ve got to look deeper to find an edge. Texas Tech is 10th nationally in pass defense; Oklahoma State stands fourth-nationally in passing offense. But the Red Raiders are vulnerable against the run, while the Cowboys are putting up 212 yards-per-game – 23rd most in the nation – on the ground. Texas Tech has the nation’s top passing offense and Oklahoma State is 98th – bad news for the Cowboys. Texas Tech can’t run much – or chooses not to – and the Cowboys have been pretty stout against the run this year, sitting at No. 26 nationally against the ground game. This alone tells me that even though the Cowboys like to rely on the passing-game and have the nation’s third best scoring offense, it would behoove them to stick to the ground and let tailback Joseph Randle control the ball and the clock. Yes, I know it’s counterintuitive to stifle your own attack, but when Texas Tech gets the rock, quarterback Seth Doege is going to enjoy himself against the Cowboys’ secondary. To me, this one comes down to time of possession. If Oklahoma State can dominate the ball – meaning pounding the run and holding the ball for 35-38 minutes, they’ll come out on top. But if Doege & Co. get too many possessions, the Red Raiders will put up too many points for even the prolific Cowboys offense to match.
Or you could just flip a coin.
Will the Mountaineers stop the bleeding? After having their way in the Big East for quite some time, they’ve had a brutal initiation to the Big 12. Things looked promising after beating then-No. 25 Baylor and followed that up by going on the road and knocking off then-No. 11 Texas. But, as we know, early season rankings often matter little; those wins have lost their shine with time. Four consecutive conference losses – three by at least 19 points – have followed. And now the Mountaineers have to host yet another conference power. Oklahoma. this week. The Big 12 gauntlet doesn’t have as many poisonous spikes or lava pits as the SEC’s, but it’s no stroll through the park. Counting this weekend’s showdown with Oklahoma, five of West Virginia’s last six games come against teams currently ranked in the BCS top-25. Oklahoma, which never quite pulled away in its win against Baylor last week, could be vulnerable, but West Virginia’s defense needs to pull its best Terrell Owens impression (“That’s my teammate, that’s my quarterback”) and step up for its man under center (sans tears and $1,000 sunglasses, of course) if the Mountaineers have a chance to win.
Who else is geared up for Utah State-Louisiana Tech? This one might only be available via ESPN3 but it’s worth a few hours of your time. “But, Brian, neither team plays in a major conference, shouldn’t I spend that time getting a little holiday shopping done early, or maybe we’ll go see Skyfall.” My friend, Christmas shopping is reserved for Dec. 20 -- or later, and Mr. Bond will be available via Netflix in a few months. This game will not. These teams are a combined 17-3 and are playing in what has essentially become the de facto WAC championship game. Still not convinced? Louisiana Tech has impressed the BCS computers, which often shun small schools with weaker schedules, enough to garner a No. 20 beside its name. And it has the nation’s second-ranked scoring offense, putting up 53.4 points-per-game (La. Tech has topped 50 in all but two games this year), and is first in total offense; the Bulldogs are only 24 yards shy of amassing 600 per game. And, a few weeks back, they went toe-to-toe with the Texas A&M team that just knocked off Alabama. Remember? They fell only a two-point conversion shy of overtime. Conversely, Utah State has made its living on the defensive side of the ball. The Aggies are sixth nationally in scoring defense, giving up only 13.5 points-per-game (they’ve held opponents to 20 or fewer points in all but one game), and are 12th in total defense. Like that terrible Diane Keaton movie your parents watch every time it comes on TV, something’s gotta give! If you insist on Christmas shopping, just do it on Amazon ...
Another lesser-known conference title may be at stake this week when Kent State heads south to take on Bowling Green. The MAC does have a conference title game at season’s end, so this will be more like a semifinal. Kent State enters undefeated in the conference, while BGSU – playing in the same division – has only one conference loss. A win and Kent State earns the right to play for its first conference title in 40 years. A loss and it looks like Bowling Green will take its spot in the MAC title game. Given that Kent State has been dormant for so long, we’ve decided to take a more in depth look at them before the biggest game the program has played in decades. Keep your eye out for a feature on the team – and its star, Dri Archer – on Friday.
After beating up each other for the past two months, SEC teams currently rank fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth in the BCS rankings. No one, not even mighty Alabama, emerged from the royal rumble unscathed, which is why, despite the conference’s unparalleled dominance at the top of the rankings, it’s on the outside looking in for a spot in the national title game. Need evidence at just how hard difficult it is to survive the SEC? There’s a perfect circle among those six elite teams: LSU beat South Carolina who beat Georgia who beat Florida who beat Texas A&M who beat Alabama who beat LSU. See? In the SEC, everybody wins (and loses). Schedule makers graciously decided that the entire conference needs a week to recuperate from the aforementioned anarchy. You’ll notice that, for the first time all season, I didn’t mention the conference at all in the top two sections of this column. There’s a reason. Five of those top six teams are playing FCS opponents, including Western Carolina, Jacksonville State, Wofford, Georgia Southern and Sam Houston State, this week. So rest up, gentlemen, it’s almost rivalry week.
Thanks to a yards-per-carry average that’s hovered below five, I’ve been reluctant to give him much love all season, but it’s finally time to relent. Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson looks like he’ll capture the rushing title this year. He’s only averaging 4.95 yards-per-carry – great for the pros, but well below the averages of other top college ballcarriers – but he’s a workhorse. Nevada has been feeding him the ball 29 times per-game, the most in the nation. And while he may not be as explosive as the likes of Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey or Oregon’s Kenjon Barner, that level of durability, given the amount of hits he’s taken, is worth lauding. He’s eclipsed 100 yards in all but three games this season and has been over 150 four times. Thus far, his 1,436 yards are best in the nation and his 19 touchdowns rank second. So far, slow and steady are winning the race.
While Johnny Football has gotten most, if not all, of the praise and acclaim for A&M’s surprising season and win against Alabama, as Geno Smith knows, you have to have a good defense to win games. A&M’s defense, which has ensured that Manziel gets to play the hero every week, is anchored by 6-foot-4, 250-pound backfield menace Damontre Moore. Moore sacked Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron on Alabama’s first drive of the fourth quarter last week, forcing them to punt three plays later. It was a play that shaped the outcome of the game, but was forgotten amidst the dramatic conclusion. His 12.5 sacks on the season are tied for most nationally. He also leads the nation in the less glamorous, but equally important, tackles-for-loss stat – Moore has brought people down behind the line 20 times so far. Nice job, Damontre Football.