Certainly, a month after the abrupt firing of head coach Lane Kiffin, their roster now noticeably depleted by NCAA sanctions and a bad rash of injuries, the unranked Trojans have taken a backseat this season in terms of national relevance to a young, up-and-coming UCLA team that was undefeated through five games despite playing more than a dozen true freshmen.
But the football monopoly in Los Angeles isn't officially "here" or "over there" -- in fact, it hangs in the balance. Here are five good reasons why:
>> Both teams are tied in the conference standings. With the Bruins coming off a 42-14 loss to No. 2 Oregon on Oct. 26, while USC scrapped together a strong defensive presence to hold off Utah 19-3, both teams are currently 2-2 in the Pac-12's South Division, trailing Arizona State, which has one conference loss. UCLA does control its own destiny, playing the Sun Devils at home on Nov. 23. (USC lost to Arizona State 62-41 in September.) In order to claim the L.A. football monopoly, a team must at least win its conference division
>> Losing by four touchdowns to Oregon is not a moral victory. With the young, speedy Bruins defense tackling well in space against the most formidable spread-option in football, UCLA was tied with Oregon at halftime.
If the Bruins don't collapse in the second half and hand the Ducks their first loss, you'd have to think this column would be a pretty bad idea. But the Ducks outscored the Bruins 28-0 in the second half. The loss came a week after UCLA was outclassed by the physical Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto. At 5-2, with impressive road wins at Nebraska and Utah, UCLA is still over-performing, given that Mora is playing more true freshmen than at any time in Bruins history. The future does look bright, but this group hasn't claimed elite Pac-12 status yet.
>> Despite reports of its demise, USC is still a talented -- and now motivated -- team. Mired in sanctions, Kiffin signed only 12 players on National Signing Day last February. And with its three scholarship tight ends all hurt, USC was down to walk-ons at the tight-end position against Utah.
From the offensive line to the secondary, holes have popped up all over the place for the thin Trojans, who've had trouble blocking up front and covering receivers. But interim coach Ed Orgeron has shown a knack for making adjustments and fixing problems -- an acumen the Trojans seemed to lack over the last dozen games under Kiffin.
With Orgeron moving safety Josh Shaw to cornerback, USC was able to hold the previously prolific Utes to just three points and 201 total yards. And after committing 11 penalties against Notre Dame the week prior, the struggling USC offensive line was flagged just four times against Utah. With that O line giving up five sacks and USC generating only 260 yards of offense, Orgeron still has plenty of work to do. But a full month after their liberation from Kiffin, USC players still seem geeked up to take the interim tag off Orgeron's title, with injured safety Dion Bailey notably suiting up at halftime, eager to help his team after yet another Trojan went down.
If 'SC can find health, and solve some of its offensive line issues by the time the Bruins come into the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 30, it has a real chance at an upset.
>> Neither team is lighting it up right now in terms of verbal commitments. As of Oct. 28, UCLA was ranked 52nd by Rivals in the national recruiting rankings, with 10 commitments, none ranked in the premiere "five-star" realm. Despite having no permanent head coach, USC ranks 70th, with eight commitments. By February, USC will have named a permanent head coach, and could actually beat out the Bruins once again on National Signing Day. With four banked scholarships, they'll have a respectable 19 to offer recruits. And best of all for USC, NCAA reprieve or no, it'll be the last Signing Day under sanctions.
>> UCLA has won just one game over USC over the last five years, and it wasn't even that convincing. Showcasing the upcoming Bruins-Trojans showdown in August, the Associated Press labeled UCLA's 38-28 victory over 'SC last season as "viciously one-sided." But this game was actually a lot more competitive than that. In fact, USC out-gained UCLA 513 yards to 406. And despite five turnovers, the Trojans actually had a chance to take control of the game in the second half.
Daniel Frankel is the founder and editor-in-chief of TitleTownNews.org, the voice of Southern California sports.
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