UCLA can't win for winning

If a team wins a championship and no one is there to hear it, does it still win the championship?

I've spent the last two hours trying to come up with a way to capture just how strangely UCLA became the inaugural representative of the South Division in the Pacific 12 Conference championship game, but I can't stop shaking my head in disbelief.

On Friday, a team that hasn't won on the road in four seasons (Colorado) had to go into one of the toughest places to win on the road in the country (Utah) and win. A team that once looked like one of the hottest teams in the country (Arizona State) had to go stone cold and lose three straight games.

A team that was left for dead a month ago (UCLA), now has a chance to go to the Rose Bowl or no bowl at all if it loses its next two games to fall to 6-7 -- thus having to petition the NCAA for a bowl bid.

All that happened. Utah lost at home to Colorado 17-14 on Friday, Arizona State went in the tank after beating USC earlier in the season and the Bruins stepped into the Pac-12 title game to a chorus of snickers, not cheers.

UCLA can’t win for winning.

It makes no sense. And yet it leaves us with one unassailable conclusion: UCLA can't be mediocre anymore.

Trending upward, closing the gap on USC, finishing 6-6 and going to a second-tier bowl game, none of those things are going to cut it anymore.

UCLA might’ve clinched a spot in the Pac-12 title game, but it hasn't won anything yet.

At various points during the season, I’ve felt like UCLA was aiming simply to be good enough to make a bowl game and buy embattled coach Rick Neuheisel enough goodwill to prove he belongs in Westwood long term.

Seven wins would’ve done that. Six wins might have done that. Now the path forward is clear: UCLA must turn the corner in one of these next two weeks.

Not many folks out there are giving the Bruins much credit for earning a spot in the conference championship game or treating it as an accomplishment. That’s unfair. It is an accomplishment, just not a great accomplishment.

By beating Washington State, Cal, Oregon State, Arizona State and Colorado, the Bruins have proven themselves as the best of the mediocre teams in this conference. Not a great team like Oregon, Stanford or USC -- who essentially played into a three-way tie for first -- and not a bad team like Colorado (3-10, 2-7).

“You want these games to be for high stakes,” Neuheisel said last Sunday night. “We want to win this championship going through the front door.”

UCLA might’ve have back-doored its way into the Pac-12 title game with Utah’s loss. But the only way to come out the other side with a real title is through the front door.

If they do, everybody will be there to hear it.