UCLA boarded it's team plane in Salt Lake City on Saturday evening having just lost control of the Pac-12 South division thanks to a rugged 31-6 loss to Utah, but by the time the Bruins landed in Los Angeles, control was once again theirs.
As players turned on their smart phones, murmurs began to spread that Washington State had upset Arizona State, 37-27, in a late game meaning that despite the loss to Utah, the Bruins would still represent the South division in the Pac-12 title game if they can win their final two games against Colorado and USC.
"The players certainly knew," coach Rick Neuheisel said. "The players, with all their devices, had been keeping track. But we are not going to deviate from one game at a time. Certainly last night’s performance is plenty enough motivation to come back and play with everything we’ve got this weekend for the final home game for our seniors and I just hope we’ll respond just as we have before when we’ve suffered a setback. That we come back with a vengeance and play well the next week."
The one-game-at-a-time approach had suited the Bruins well the last couple of weeks in victories over California and Arizona State that resurrected UCLA's season, but reading Twitter posts by UCLA players just after the Washington State-Arizona State game was a clear indication the Bruins are playing attention to the conference standings.
UCLA (5-5, 4-3 in conference) is tied with Arizona State (6-4, 4-3) but owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Sun Devils. Both teams trail USC (8-2, 5-2) by a game, but the Trojans are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions. Neuheisel insists he will not talk about the race this week and focus only on not looking past Colorado (2-9, 1-6), but acknowledged that it sometimes falls on deaf ears.
"I can talk until I’m blue in the face, but it’s not like these kids aren’t aware," Neuheisel said. "They know. It’s just what we focus on. ... It’s really important that we focus on the Colorado Buffaloes and how to execute offensively, defensively and in the kicking game against them. And playing our best game not only for our program but also as tribute to our seniors. That’s what I want to focus on. And making sure that when we get to the stadium on Saturday we’re not only physically but very mentally ready to play."
Clearly with a 5-5 team in the driver's seat, the Pac-12 South isn't exactly the Murderer's Row of college football, especially with the top team in the division ineligible. Oregon and Stanford are clearly the class of the Pac-12 and both play in the North. And with USC out of the picture, it appears a pretty mediocre team will get to the inaugural Pac-12 title game.
"I think there’s a lot of parity in this league," Neuheisel said. "Obviously there were two teams this year, SC is obviously a very talented team as well, but there were two teams that just got out and kind of ran away. They had a game last night where Oregon looked like they’ve taken control. But everybody else I think can beat everybody else."
And as far as getting into a championship-caliber game with a sub-par record, Neuheisel wasn't all that concerned. In 1984, he played quarterback for a team that wasn't overwhelming on paper into the Rose Bowl and walloped No. 4 Illinois, 45-9.
"You know I went to the Rose Bowl as a senior at 6-4-1 and we did just fine," Neuheisel said.