College Football is a game of rivalries. Michigan-Ohio State. Auburn-Alabama. Florida-Georgia. Texas-Oklahoma. These are some of the fiercest and most intense rivalries in all of sport. USC-UCLA should be up there too, but most people would probably not think of it that way. USC and UCLA occupy the Pac-12, which is often viewed as the lesser conference of the Power 5. It’s understandable why. Generally, the teams aren’t as relevant, the atmospheres aren’t as intense, the conference doesn’t generate as much money, and the games are relegated to late-night TV.
Not to mention a general anti-west coast bias from those who believe the heart of the sport lives in the southeast and in Texas. It certainly doesn’t help the case that two of the biggest brands of the Pac-12, USC and UCLA, will be leaving the conference within a few years. Without those schools, the Pac-12 could very much cease to exist in due time.
But this year’s matchup should excite fans of the sport for one simple reason: For the first time in a long time, both of these teams are really good.
Both USC and UCLA are ranked and occupy the same spots in the AP poll and the CFP rankings. USC is ranked 7th, and UCLA is ranked 16th. I think in reality, USC is probably a little worse than that and UCLA is probably a little better, but wins and losses have them slotted in those spots for now.
If people don’t care about the rivalry, it’s probably because the teams haven’t been very good recently. The last time both these teams faced each other while ranked was in 2014. USC had a couple of years of being carried by Sam Darnold. Clay Helton long overstayed his welcome and brought the program into substantial losing territory. For the Bruins, success has generally been harder to come by for a long time now.
Comparing USC and UCLA
But as of right now, both these programs are in the best shape they’ve been in for a while and may be set for years to come. (The Pac-12 overall has been very improved this year as well.) Lincoln Riley has turned USC around awfully quickly, bringing a litany of transfers and 5 stars to emulate the offense he had in Oklahoma, with the excellent Caleb Williams leading the charge at quarterback. At 9-1, USC already has the most wins they’ve had since 2017, Sam Darnold’s last year.
Meanwhile, the turnaround was much slower for Chip Kelly at UCLA, but after a rocky start, his offense is humming. The experience at quarterback doesn’t hurt, with Dorian Thompson-Robinson in his 5th year and showing a new level of confidence and ownership over the system. But they’ve got talent all over the place and a great scheme to go with it. UCLA is 8-2, with dominant wins over ranked opponents, Washington and Utah.
This should be a high-scoring matchup and a great test for both of these teams. Since coming to Westwood, Chip Kelly is 2-2 against USC. Last year was a dominant win for UCLA, 62 – 33. Of course, it’s an entirely different Trojans team. USC has been the talk of the Pac-12 since before the season started, and they’ve mostly backed it up. However, they have yet to be really tested. They’ve only played one ranked opponent so far in Utah, and they lost that game. UCLA is a bit more battle-tested with two ranked wins, but they also have two losses on the year. USC has only one.
It would have been great to come into this game with both teams having just one loss. UCLA’s loss to Arizona last week was unfortunate. But with a very tight Pac-12 race, the Bruins can still make the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl Game. The loss to Arizona lessens the stakes a bit, but this is the kind of game that can reignite a true cross-town rivalry. This is still the matchup in the Pac-12 that the entire season has been building towards, and it’s finally here. May the best team win.