LOS ANGELES -- For the UCLA Bruins, this is the only game that matters.
All season, UCLA coaches and players have spewed the tired cliche that the next opponent is the only one that counts. This week, you finally believe them.
The Bruins and the USC Trojans will play the next chapter in one of the country’s most heated and storied college football rivalries Saturday at noon in a game that will decide the Pac-12 South champion ... and just how far UCLA has come as a football program.
UCLA is enjoying one of its most successful seasons in the past 15 years and is well on the way to putting years of mediocrity in the rearview mirror. But unless the Bruins can end USC’s run of city domination, nobody will believe UCLA football has turned any kind of corner.
UCLA (No. 17 BCS, No. 17 AP) is ranked ahead of USC (No. 18 BCS, No. 21 AP) in the national polls and BCS standings. The Bruins (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) have a better record than the Trojans (7-3, 5-3) and are a half-game ahead of USC in the conference standings. Even so, until the Bruins can find a way to defeat USC in a game with postseason implications on the line, UCLA will remain the pesky, little, kid brother to the national powerhouse across town.
“It would definitely validate that UCLA is an elite program,” safety Andrew Abbott said. “Where we’re going in the future. Where this team is about to go. Where we’ve been. This would be a big win for us.”
The old saying around UCLA is that for any season to be a success, it has to include a win over USC. If that’s the case, there haven’t been very many successful seasons as of late. USC has won five in a row against UCLA and 12 of the past 13.
Last year, the Bruins had a chance to win the outright Pac-12 South title in their game against USC, and then-coach Rick Neuheisel pointed to that achievement as evidence that UCLA had closed the gap between the schools.
UCLA then flopped in historic fashion with a 50-0 loss that was the largest margin of victory in the rivalry in 81 years. Neuheisel was served walking papers a couple of days later, and UCLA remained a long way from joining the college football elite.
“That’s in the past, but until we change it, until we do something about it, it’s going to be stuck in people’s minds,” safety Dalton Hilliard said. “This is just another opportunity for us to hopefully get that whole debacle out of their minds and hopefully another opportunity for us to prove to ourselves and the nation that we are a different team.”
The players say this is a different team. First-year coach Jim Mora has instilled a new, no-nonsense attitude among the team and a new way of thinking in the locker room. Players are no longer thinking about the results of the game, only the process of executing plays. Each game carries equal importance, and that attitude has put UCLA in a position it has not reached in quite some time.
The Bruins have posted eight regular-season wins for only the second time in 14 seasons and have a legitimate shot at an upper-tier bowl game for the first time since 2005. A win Saturday would keep the Bruins in the picture for their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1998. That’s the kind of thing that would be program-changing.
“It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before,” Abbott said. “The implications of this game. What we can achieve if we can win this game. What it means for UCLA in the future is special.”
The key to reaching those plateaus, of course, is remaining true to the mantra that every game is the same. That will be more difficult this week because the stakes involved will attract a national spotlight on a game that always receives plenty of local attention.
Quarterback Brett Hundley, prepping to take snaps in the UCLA-USC game for the first time, said people started talking to him about this game at the beginning of the year. It’s the game everyone always wants to talk about, he said, and they all want to know if this is finally the year UCLA beats USC.
But Hundley said that every game is important and that the stakes in Saturday’s game would not be nearly as high if the Bruins hadn’t used the one-game-at-a-time mentality to win eight of their 10 games this season.
“I honestly believe there has been a lot riding on every game,” he said. “Every game means something. This game means a lot, but all the other previous games have built up to make it so this game means a lot.”
For the first time in recent memory, Bruins fans have some reason for hope. UCLA has a better 10-game record than USC for the first time since 2001. The Bruins are ranked higher than the Trojans, marking the first time in 12 seasons the teams will meet with UCLA positioned higher in the poll.
Also, the Bruins are playing at home, where even some of the best USC teams over the past decade have struggled. These Bruins, with their record and quality of victories, have shown they are for real, though most are withholding their final verdict until after the USC result is in.
“Whoever wins, that’s all you’re going to hear about all year,” running back Johnathan Franklin said. “That’s when the flags are going to come out, and whoever wins, everyone is going to be wearing their T-shirts. It’s for the city. It’s for bragging rights. It’s for everything.”
That "everything" includes the idea that UCLA is, indeed, a program ready to join the nation’s elite again. To do that, UCLA must defeat USC.
Nothing else matters.