UCLA and USC are College Football Playoff contenders

Lincoln Riley vs. Chip Kelly. Two offensive wizards, one expecting to be an NFL head coach someday, the other already having done so and embarking on his second collegiate stint.

Caleb Williams vs. Dorian Thompson Robinson. Two double-threat quarterback supermen, one so confident he actually accepted the nickname “Superman,” the other happy to internalize any doubters and silence them with a single sentence.

Travis Dye vs. Zach Charbonnet. Two bloodthirsty and cunning transfer jams who grew up in the Los Angeles area, one an easy conversationalist from a training stint in Oregon, the other a strong and quiet guy who speaks with the thump of his pads and wasn’t thrilled with his Michigan experience.

USC vs. UCLA on Nov. 19 in a game that actually matters nationally because both programs are running legitimate operations — no spoilers allowed, only contenders. That’s what we’re staring at after Saturday, a day when no top 10 teams nationwide lost but LA’s relevance has skyrocketed.

In the afternoon, Kelly’s 18th Bruins pumped their chests for four quarters against No. 11 Utah and won their second straight top 15 game at the Rose Bowl 42-32.

In prime time on the East Coast, Riley’s sixth-placed Trojans were challenged again, this time by a capable Washington State team, but lost 20 unanswered points and won comfortably, 30-14. People who are picky about USC are showing their true colors at this point—they’re either self-hating Trojans or people whose faces turn cardinal at the thought of USC winning.

This Sunday morning, LA sports fans are waking up to the brink of a Dodgers playoff run and the NBA’s imminent nonsensical melodramas, but the most surprising and impactful development lies here: USC and UCLA are both 6-0 for the first time since 2005, with one all-too-real chance to play their first Top 10 rivalry match since 1988 – a few weeks after the Dodgers won the World Series over the A’s. (All theoretical, of course.)

If you’ve just looked twice, welcome to the club. Has it really been 34 years since USC and UCLA not only bragged about the victory bell, but also about the national championship?

For whatever reason, the Trojans and the Bruins just can’t play well at the same time. It’s kind of embarrassing, honestly. This isn’t the state of Oregon-Oregon, regionally defined in a part of the country that produces few blue-chip recruits. This is USC-UCLA, based in a city that exports enough future NFL talent to college programs each year to fill the recruiting classes of more than a few teams.

If you’re an LA sports fan, the prospect of USC-UCLA entering a new era where it becomes an annual demonstration of our city’s excellence on the football field should be reason enough, even if your interest goes to the pros tends care.

On Saturday night, Fox college football analyst Joel Klatt tweeted his new rankings, which listed USC No. 6 and UCLA No. 10. The Associated Press poll on Sunday will look something like this. (I’m expecting the Bruins to finish at No. 12 because I doubt they’ll idle past No. 10 Penn State and No. 11 Oregon, which crushed Arizona 49-22 on the road Saturday.)

The specific placements don’t matter this early as there is still so much carnage to come. But projecting forward, I see 14 teams left that could reasonably reach the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs, and two of them live in LA, which just so happens to be hosting the January 9th CFP national championship game at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood is discharged.

Identifying these 14 teams shouldn’t take much detective work, but here are: Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, USC, Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Mississippi, Penn State, Oregon, UCLA, Texas Christian, and Texas (which have Longhorns two losses, sure, but if they somehow got to 11-2 they would have a compelling argument that if starting quarterback Quinn Ewers hadn’t injured starting quarterback Quinn Ewers against Alabama in the first quarter, they’d have a compelling argument that they’d be undefeated – yeah, a long shot, but the CFP committee can’t resist a one-case TV ratings winner).

These 14 teams will likely play each other 14 times (taking potential conference championship matchups into account).

Of course, we should want USC and UCLA both to be 10-0 when they play the Rose Bowl the weekend before Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, this may be the only way to guarantee an authentic sell out of the sacred venue.

Each team would have to win an extremely tough road game – USC in Utah next Saturday and UCLA in Oregon on October 22nd. They’re all trap games after that, and the Trojans and Bruins have shown enough so far to build confidence that they won’t choke and ruin the fun.

Because even if one or both teams were 9-1, it would be a civic event not to be missed.

Of course, if both are 10-0, the winner would jump to playoff pole. In that case, the loser would also stay alive and hope to avenge the loss in the Pac-12 championship game (which now features the teams with the top two conference records, not the division champions).

If one is 10-0 and the other 9-1, it is an elimination game for the 9-1 team.

If both are 9-1, the winner remains very much alive for the Pac-12 championship and a playoff spot.

From the looks of it, USC is ranked higher, but UCLA proved more on the field thanks to Saturday’s convincing win over Utah, last year’s Pac-12 champion. The Bruins have shown they can play physically with a strong team like the Utes, but also flash their speed when the window opens for that. USC will have the same opportunity with Utah next weekend, but it will be much more difficult as the game takes place in Salt Lake City at night.

From here, UCLA has the easier route. That’s largely because the Trojans face the resurgent Notre Dame, who have won three straight games after a 2-0 start, in the season finale at the Coliseum.

These dreamy scenarios must be making the Big Ten (and Fox) dizzy. On the other hand, the other Pac-12 schools have to roll their eyes – Oh, so now you two are gonna flex those muscles we’ve always heard about?

Looking ahead, the joint rise of USC and UCLA (for once!) comes at immaculate time. If they head out to the Big Ten in 2024 as they currently stand with no further expansion, each will be the other’s only conference rival.

To keep fan interest alive amid games against Rutgers, Illinois, Purdue and the like, USC and UCLA will need each other’s best more than ever.

How kind of the Trojans and Bruins to have a head start in 2022. Now all they have to do is get it.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-10-09/college-football-usc-ucla-rising UCLA and USC are College Football Playoff contenders

Emma Bowman

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