USC and UCLA validate how Big Ten’s future depends on L.A.

On Friday, Gus Johnson went to the pool at his Pasadena hotel and swam laps. The present was bliss, but he couldn’t help but think about his future as Fox’s senior college football play-by-play man.

“It was so refreshing,” Johnson said Friday night on the eve of Saturday’s epic crosstown rivalry battle between USC and UCLA. “My life will change. If these cats get into the Big Ten, I’ll swim in September!”

And apparently even in November.

The previous weekend, Johnson and color analyst Joel Klatt were in frigid Columbus, Ohio for a “Big Noon Kickoff” snooze party between Ohio State and Indiana. Too often this year has made it clear why Fox and the Big Ten enticed the Trojans and Bruins into a migration to the Midwest that would change collegiate sports forever.

Fox may be enjoying the ultimate TV ratings weapon in next weekend’s Ohio State-Michigan game, but week after week it’s just been too dependent on the Buckeyes and Wolverines. For a four-week stretch earlier this season, Johnson, Klatt and the Big Noon kickoff pregame show crew featuring Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Urban Meyer and Brady Quinn were transformed into the Michigan beat after beating the Wolverines in their games Maryland, Iowa, Indiana and Penn State. Only the Penn State game would normally receive such hype.

No wonder Johnson was loving life this weekend in Southern California.

“I have to give a lot of credit to our Fox executives for being able to put these deals together and give us this diversity by bringing in two big brands,” Johnson said. “Michigan and Ohio State, those are the big brands [now], with Penn State just a notch below. And now we get USC and UCLA. As #1 [broadcast] Team every week, I think we will have moments not to be missed.

“The Big Ten to achieve this is groundbreaking. And I know Oklahoma and Texas went to the SEC, but you can kind of understand that. Will USC and UCLA join the Big Ten? Come on.”

On Saturday, for the first time this season, Fox opted to move Johnson and Klatt from the Big Noon kickoff between Texas Christian and Baylor to the prime-time affair at the Rose Bowl.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scores a touchdown in the first quarter Saturday.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scores a touchdown in the first quarter Saturday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Klatt lives in the Los Angeles area. Personal convenience aside, he knows this is going to be a big deal, not just for Fox but for the sport he loves.

“I don’t want to denigrate the lunch slot, because I can already tell you that I’m incredibly proud of what we were able to build,” said Klatt. “Put very simply, we created a third premium TV window for college football that didn’t exist before. And I can’t wait to continue building a legacy for Big Noon.

“Even so, we’re approaching it with clear eyes that our marquee match is going to include USC and UCLA at times and we need to get off that slot and come over here to the West Coast and call the game that’s a little bit later in the day. I think the contracts will reflect that.”

Saturday night’s heartbreaking show under the lights in Pasadena — USC outlasted UCLA 48-45 to earn a berth in the Pac-12 championship game and boost its college football playoff hopes — was a strong endorsement of Fox’s daring heist and the Big Ten the LA schools from the Pac-12.

Sure they would have followed it up even if USC and UCLA hadn’t both cost the top 10s this season, but now that Lincoln Riley has remade the Trojans in one season and Chip Kelly has brought the Bruins back to glory in their fifth year , the move feels even more destined.

“Perfect timing,” Johnson said.

Johnson and Klatt didn’t talk much about the future of the Big Ten during Saturday night’s broadcast. All week it seemed as if everyone, particularly in Westwood, was tiptoeing into these rivals’ future together, paying off their debts and battling new conference brethren from Lincoln, Neb. to Piscataway, NJ, while the University of California Regents moved on evaluated The benefits of UCLA’s move, the silence, made sense.

But there should also be something to get excited about from the schools’ point of view.

“If you look at the exposure and tee times they’re going to experience now compared to what they’ve been exposed to in recent years, it’s obviously to their advantage,” Klatt said.

Saturday night, Klatt, sensing the country hadn’t seen nearly enough of USC star quarterback Caleb Williams, spent much of the second half stumbling upon him as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. (Williams should be the Heisman lead after rushing for 503 yards and three touchdowns in USC’s biggest game to date).

The country will soon see a lot more of the exciting brand of football that Riley and Kelly brought to LA – but maybe with a touch more defense?

Think about it: Any time USC in particular heads into the Big Ten, it’s going to be a more compelling “Big Noon Kickoff” bid than, say, the Buckeyes and Hoosiers. Also, as part of the Big Ten’s historic New Media Rights deal, NBC and CBS will be able to enjoy a fresh taste of the West Coast every Saturday.

USC wide receiver Jordan Addison catches a touchdown pass against UCLA in the third quarter Saturday.

USC wide receiver Jordan Addison catches a touchdown pass against UCLA in the third quarter Saturday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“These schools are in a different realm, a different dimension,” Johnson said. “USC and UCLA play in the Midwest in the winter … and then teams come from the Midwest to play USC and UCLA in the winter, in the sun, in the shade of the San Gabriel Mountains, or in south-central LA Man, this is going to be a must on TV.”

When Johnson and Klatt wrapped up Saturday’s broadcast, they rightly looked to the No. 2 no. 3 showdown between Ohio State and Michigan.

USC-UCLA will never live up to the hype of “The Game” as members of the Big Ten, but Saturday night’s riveting performance was the first step in routinely putting the rivalry back in the national consciousness where it belongs.

Tennessee misery

South Carolina tight end Jaheim Bell stiff arms Tennessee defenseman Tamarion McDonald.

South Carolina tight end Jaheim Bell stiff arms Tennessee defenseman Tamarion McDonald during the Gamecocks’ upset win Saturday night.

(Artie Walker Jr. / Associated Press)

Keep the Tennessee fans in your thoughts today. The Volunteers suffered one of the lightest losses I can recall given the stakes, falling to South Carolina 63-38.

Tennessee, No. 5, entered the weekend seemingly like a lockdown, finishing 11-1 and sliding cleanly into the playoffs at the end of the season. Instead, the Volunteers made South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler look like the Heisman Trophy contender he was supposed to have under Riley in Oklahoma.

Tennessee’s collapse certainly cleared up the playoff picture for USC. If they beat Notre Dame and probably Oregon over the next two weeks, the Trojans will deservedly make the playoffs. USC and UCLA validate how Big Ten’s future depends on L.A.

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