Bruins start their Pac-12 Championship Series

After UCLA ended five years of frustration against USC with a 38-28 win at a very soggy Rose Bowl, the Bruins have now found themselves in unexpectedly rarefied air. One year after backing into the Pac-12 Championship game in ignominious fashion, losing to USC 50-0, but winning the South Division because of NCAA probations and tiebreakers, UCLA is headed to the championship game again.

But, the Bruins opponent is still to be determined as the Pac-12 North Division is still not settled. And UCLA has a chance to do something about it as they face Stanford, currently tied with Oregon for first place in the North and holding the tiebreaker edge because of the Cardinal's 17-14 upset of the Ducks in Eugene, this Saturday in the Rose Bowl.

If Stanford beats UCLA, the Cardinal win the Pac-12 North and get to be the host team in the championship game on Friday, November 30. If the Bruins beat Stanford and Oregon beats Oregon State, the Bruins would travel to Eugene. If UCLA beats Stanford and Oregon State beats Oregon, UCLA would be the host team for the championship against Stanford. (And I'm sure the people living near the Arroyo Seco will just love an unexpected football game played in their neighborhood during the work week that would start around 5 pm.)

As someone who sat through many a disheartening UCLA performance during the 21st Century, I had low expectations for the 2012 season. The hiring of Jim Mora was considered to be a desperation move by UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero after more famous coaches like Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach were hired by Arizona and Washington State.

Mora did not take over a team lacking in talent, but he was able to actually get the team to actually convert its talent into quality performance on the field much better than his predecessor, Rick Neuheisel. It also helped that Brett Hundley turned out to be one of the best quarterbacks at UCLA since Cade McNown. Also, Hundley has so far avoided the injuries that have plagued the UCLA quarterback position in recent years.

UCLA did have one embarrassing loss this season, a 43-17 loss to Cal at Berkeley, but managed to avoid the even more horrific losses of the Neuheisel era. (USC 50, UCLA 0 in 2011; Oregon 60, UCLA 13 in 2010; BYU 59, UCLA 0 in 2008).

But do the 9-2 Bruins have a good shot at going to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day? Last year, only the most wildly optimistic UCLA fan would have expected the Bruins to upset Oregon at Autzen Stadium with a lame duck coach (Neuheisel was fired after the USC game and was allowed to coach just the Pac-12 Championship, but no bowl game.) UCLA lost 49-31 to Oregon last year.

Stanford, which didn't seem to have much trouble stopping an Oregon offense that piled up 62 points against USC, will definitely be the strongest defensive unit the Bruins have faced. However, the potential of a rematch between the two teams in a week presents an even bigger challenge.

College football is a sport that tends not to have rematches. When they do occur, the teams will usually meet several months apart, which gives coaches ample time to install different offensive and defensive sets in an attempt to gain an edge in the second game. It's unlikely that if UCLA and Stanford met again so quickly that there would be much either side could do to change things up to any noticeable extent. (The Pac-12 might want to avoid having an interdivisional matchup to end the season, but that would probably require moving the date of USC's home against Notre Dame, which is unlikely.)

(UCLA has only had in-season rematches against conference opponents in three season, 1943-45, when wartime travel restrictions forced UCLA to play both Cal and USC twice each year. UCLA has also had rematches in the Rose Bowl against Michigan State (1966), Ohio State (1976), and Michigan (1983). UCLA won all three of those Rose Bowls, but lost the first games to both Michigan State and Ohio State.)

While a Rose Bowl bid seems tantalizingly close for UCLA, most Bruins fans should realize that they are, to borrow a cliche, playing with house money now. Most prognosticators figured UCLA to be an 8-4 team. Right now, they are 9-2. They will likely just be outside of the top 14 in the BCS (they are presently 17th, only fourth best among Pac-12 teams with Oregon, Stanford, and Oregon State all ranking higher.), leaving them ineligible for an at large bid to a BCS bowl. So if the Bruins cannot get past Stanford or Oregon, they would probably find themselves playing in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio on December 29 against a Big 12 foe.

But, the biggest prize for UCLA this year was to no longer be the deserved butt of jokes about its futility on the field. There finally appears to be a future over in Westwood. The Bruins have drawn crowds of over 80,000 for their last two home games and could make it three in a row with the Stanford game.

Other notes:

  • Saturday's rain was the first to fall on a USC-UCLA game since 1961. That year, the Bruins won 10-7. And to show how much the game has changed, The Trojans' only touchdown came on a 52-yard return of a 3rd down quick kick by USC's Pete Beathard, a quarterback normally, but forced to play on defense as two platoon football was not allowed in college football at the time.

    At this time, the weather forecast for this Saturday in Pasadena is sunny with temperatures in the 70s, which would be a welcome change from Saturday's rain showers.

  • The Big Ten (which has 12 teams and is poised to add two more in Maryland and Rutgers) representative in the Rose Bowl will most likely be either Nebraska or Wisconsin. Wisconsin backed into a divisional championship because Ohio State and Penn State are on probation. Nebraska is tied with Michigan in the other division, but should clinch first place with a win against Iowa on Saturday.

  • USC will definitely be playing in a bowl this year. Most website projections have them playing in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, although they could slide all the way down to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. The Holiday Bowl is another Pac-12 vs Big 12 (the Big 12 has 10 teams by the way) matchup. The bowl game in San Francisco has already invited Navy as one participant. The Pac-12 also has ties to bowl games in Las Vegas, El Paso, and Albuquerque. USC's bowl position depends a lot on how the Trojans fare against #1 Notre Dame Saturday night at the Coliseum.

  • If UCLA beats Stanford Saturday, they will have won 10 games during the regular season for the first time since 1998. That was the year UCLA won its first 10 games, then lost out on a chance for the BCS championship with a loss at Miami and then lost the Rose Bowl to Wisconsin. That year UCLA played 11 games before its bowl game. Teams now play 12 games.

  • If UCLA were to lose to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game, they would almost assuredly not get a BCS at large berth because Oregon would be ranked high enough that they would be guaranteed a spot and conferences can send only two teams to the BCS.

  • Jim Mora's nine wins so far ties Terry Donahue for the most by a coach in his first year with UCLA. Mora will have three chances to pick up a tenth win.

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