I’m going to preview the Victory Bell matchup today, but first I would like to offer some reflections on the college football season in the age of Covid and how we got here.
It’s been a tough and crazy year in this country. We’re in the midst of the worst pandemic in over a century. It’s been perpetuated at every turn by institutional failure, incompetence, and malevolence. And as a result of this, people are being asked to change their way of life in order to minimize danger, even as that danger remains ever-present and growing.
It has unfortunately resulted in a tug of war where the lack of commitment to one way of doing things has caused us to face the worst of both worlds. Nobody wants to isolate forever, but nobody wants to deal with getting sick either.
I bring this up only because, despite what many people say, the sports world is a mirror for bigger societal issues. Sports and politics have forever been intertwined, and forever will be. And the same pattern that has emerged with our larger failure to confront this virus has hamstrung the college football world in 2020.
Early on, the existence of the pandemic seemed to present an existential threat for the sports world as we know it, particularly when it came to football. And an issue that clearly wasn’t going away was only compounded by the lack of coordination and response among the corrupt institutions that were in charge.
For a while, the plan was to play football as if nothing was wrong. This plan skidded to a halt, not because of the disease itself, but because of the resulting player advocacy movement that was born from it. Players wanted to play, but they also wanted assurance of protection and healthcare, due to the inherent risks of playing a contact sport during a pandemic.
This threatened the amateur model (some would say illusion) that the NCAA has relied on for so long. Giving these players special treatment in the form of a protective bubble and workers compensation would be a tacit acknowledgment that college football players are essentially professional athletes, rather than students who also play sports. Without this distinction, the amateur model that the NCAA relies on falls apart.
So the powers that be decided to not rush into football. The Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences paved the way with season cancellations that would later be overturned, while the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 postponed the start of the season. The universities would eventually realize that the financial effects of not playing college football would be devastating for their institutions, so they decided to push forward.
But there never was a plan. Had we not played at all, we could have fully limited the spread in a big way. Had we decided to play with a bubble and players protection, we could have had a more successful season.
Instead, the FBS did what it did best: rely on a bunch of scattered institutions to each do their own thing with no central leadership. Conferences played at different times, with different schedule lengths, and with different Covid protocols. It’s worked in the sense that we have had a season. But the number of games canceled due to Covid has been astronomical.
The conferences seemed to hope that a postponement would solve this issue. Instead, Covid is worse now than it was then. So once again, we could have addressed this in the hope of an effective and normal football season, but instead, we’re playing an unusual season while still not fully mitigating the dangers of Covid.
So we’ve had college football, but it hasn’t quite been the same. So much of this sport is dependent on the atmosphere, on the spectacle. This has been either limited or nonexistent, depending on the conference. Bands and crowds are limited in the SEC, ACC, and Big 12, and banned in the Pac-12 and Big Ten.
At the same time, the schools that are trying to create that atmosphere this year are invariably less safe. The on-field product has been questionable too, as many teams are finding it difficult to put together a healthy and effective football team after such a limited offseason. The pandemic has shown us that no matter how much we want to pretend it doesn’t exist, it will still be there.
Usually, the college football regular season culminates in rivalry week. But with all the conferences playing at different times, this has once again been challenged. Michigan-Ohio State, once the biggest rivalry in the sport, will not be played for the first time since 1917.
To most outside the Pac-12, the oft-teased little brother of the Power 5, this matchup doesn’t mean much. But to those in LA who support these teams, it’s everything. This year we’re going to get it, we’re getting it with relatively healthy teams, and we’re getting it with stakes too.
As a young writer, I’m going to do my best to never bullshit you with my takes. And that is no different here. As much as I’m enjoying having the escape of football, I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t bigger issues going on and that the way this season was handled wasn’t dangerous, problematic, and irresponsible. This stuff is worth talking about, and it needs to be talked about if we ever want to learn from our mistakes. When this is all over, the FBS is going to have to look itself in the mirror and ask a lot of tough questions about how this season was handled, and I intend to do my part in asking them.
Having said that, if there’s one thing we’ve learned during this pandemic, it’s the importance of celebrating little victories. And in the midst of all this craziness, both USC and UCLA fans should be thankful that we get to witness this rivalry intact.
Now, on to the game.
The Victory Bell: USC vs UCLA
This is a big-time matchup coming up for both these teams. While the College Football Playoff has undoubtedly lessened the importance of regional rivalries in exchange to focus on the national competition, these rivalries still matter to these schools and the fandom.
This is especially the case for a conference like the Pac-12, where you’re unlikely to see College Football Playoff contenders anytime soon. The overall level of play may not be at the level of some of these more successful programs, but when it comes to the stakes of a rivalry game and the importance of bragging rights, you can put USC vs. UCLA up there with just about any other matchup in the country.
Because in this crazy sport that is college football, a large portion of your success or failure as a coach is contingent on your ability to beat rivals. Jim Harbaugh has won a lot of games at Michigan, but his inability to beat Ohio State at the end of the year is likely to be his undoing as Head Coach at UM.
Gus Malzahn‘s tenure at Auburn has been a rollercoaster, but his ability to take down Alabama fairly regularly is what keeps him employed. And as good as LSU was last year, it was their wild win over Alabama, a hump they hadn’t been able to get over for years, that really solidified them as a championship contender.
Not to mention, because out of conference records don’t count toward Championship game seeding, the ability to win rivalry games late in the season is often what makes or breaks your season.
So there’s no discounting the importance of this one, for either team. USC comes in hoping to secure a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Win and they’re in. Lose, and they need some help.
But on the other side is UCLA, who likely believes that they have a team this year that can challenge USC for this title. They are 3-2 on the year, the first time they’ve had a winning record in the Chip Kelly era. This is a winnable game for them, and boy would they love to show the Trojans what they’re made of.
The season has been building up to this point. The stakes are high, and the game should be a good one.
To be honest, I was not optimistic about this year’s Bruins team, and I expected them to have no chance in this game when it rolled around.
But the Bruins have surprised me. They’re a much-improved team in pretty much every area. And while I thought it likely that Kelly would use the pandemic and shortened season as an excuse for a throwaway year, it instead seems to have helped the Bruins. They get to bypass their out of conference schedule, they’re 3-2 on the year, and because there are so few games left, they actually have a chance to finish with a decent record!
The Trojans are a bit different, and frankly, they’re not as good as I expected them to be, and I don’t think they’re as good as they were last year. USC has been playing the “will they/won’t they” game when it comes to keeping Clay Helton around for years now, and it’s wreaked havoc on their program. The lack of decisive and timely messaging about Helton’s future this past offseason pretty much wrecked their recruiting class, as USC allowed the rumors and speculation to spread and cause angst rather than being proactive about and taking control of their messaging.
Anyway, that’s a convo for another day (and another writer). Right now, SC comes into this game 4-0 and ranked 15th in the CFP Rankings. To be honest, though, I think that’s a little misleading. They were lucky to pull off wins in both of their first two games, and they’re likely a bit overrated in the rankings due to the 4-0 record, off years for other historically good teams, and the clout of the brand name of USC. They are coming off their best win in a 38-13 game against Wazzu, but I’m still not sold on them. They’re not the effortless passing juggernaut they were last year, and they seem to have taken a step back.
Kelly is 1-1 against the Trojans in his career as a Bruins coach. His first year saw him oversee a 34-27 win in a transition year for SC. The Bruins ran the ball exceptionally well, led by current Los Angeles Charger Joshua Kelley. Last year UCLA got absolutely demolished and lost 52-35. Kedon Slovis threw for over 500 yards, and the Bruins defense could not get a stop for the life of them.
This year brings us a much more well-rounded Bruins team. They run the ball well, they’re much improved on defense, and they seem to have cut down the turnovers on offense. Recruits and transfers have bolstered the overall talent level of this Bruins team as well.
Ultimately, this will be a game of passing vs. running. UCLA wants to run the ball. They come in ranked 16th in the country in rushing yards per game. Contrast this with the Trojans, who rank a pitiful 111th in the country in rushing yards per game.
The Trojans run the air raid offense, which more often than not does not even bother to run the ball and has no problem throwing it on every down. When it comes to passing, the numbers are flipped. UCLA ranks 87th in the country, whereas USC is 17th. However, the pass efficiency simply hasn’t been there for the Trojans. Slovis ranks first in the country in pass attempts per game, but just 51st out of 99 qualifiers for yards per attempt. Compare that to last year, where Slovis ranked 27th in pass attempts per game but a very impressive 11th in yards per attempt.
The bottom line is this is a big test, one that will be a useful measuring stick for both of these teams. Has UCLA really taken a step forward, or was it just a flash in the pan against inferior opponents? Is USC as good as its record and its ranking?
This game has everything we want. High stakes, great storylines, and it should be a good game. In a year where so much has gone wrong, the Victory Bell has the potential to still be something that we can appreciate going right.