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Tuesday, November 30, 2010
USC-UCLA: It isn't pretty

By Ted Miller

We have just gutted the 2010 USC-UCLA game. Its entrails lay before us on a sacred stone where teams have revealed their greatness in days of yore, as well as in recent years. We -- you and the Pac-10 blog, of course -- are haruspices attempting to divine meaning from the state of the two programs and what their rivalry game on Saturday means.

In truth, it's just a wet, sticky, yucky pile. But things were pretty gross even before we made a bloody mess that reveals little.

"Steak tartare?" I say. "Sushi?" you say.

The battle for LA bragging rights ain't much to look at. USC is 7-5 and has lost two in a row. UCLA is 4-7 and has lost five of six. It's the most combined defeats for the two teams entering the game since 1999.

What is fair to say: The loser will be really, really miserable this offseason. The winner? It gets to not be the loser.

That said, the most accurate grade for both this season might be an incomplete, for it is difficult to get an accurate, big-picture measure of the state of either program.

For one, both programs had some impressive highs this season.

USC has been in and out of the rankings throughout the year, but it appeared to be there to stay after an impressive win at Arizona on Nov. 13. At that point, it was fair to predict a 10-3 finish, a strong first season for new coach Lane Kiffin by any measure, considering the circumstances.

At that point, some prematurely pinned a rose on Kiffin's nose. But then USC got blown out at Oregon State 36-7 and lost to Notre Dame 20-16 at home, thereby ending a record eight-game winning streak in the storied series.

The Trojans will lose a number of quality seniors heading into 2011 (WR Ronald Johnson, C Kristofer O'Dowd, FB Stanley Havili, CB Shareece Wright), and a couple more could enter the NFL draft a year early (OT Tyron Smith, DT Jurrell Casey).

Considering how young and thin the Trojans were this season, it's hard not to see them trending down after Kiffin's first season.

As for UCLA, the Bruins looked awful in their first two games -- a loss at Kansas State and a 35-0 drubbing at home against Stanford. But a three-game winning streak followed, topped by wins over Houston and Texas, a pair of nationally ranked teams. The defense stepped up and the pistol offense appeared to be breaking through with quarterback Kevin Prince.

Then: Splat. Prince, who was struggling in the passing game, was lost for the season to a knee injury, and the Bruins lost three in a row. They briefly seemed to recover with a win over Oregon State, which reignited bowl hopes, but they then lost by 17 at Washington and 21 at Arizona State.

The defense has been bad, but the offense has been awful. The Bruins rank 116th in the nation in passing and 103rd in scoring, and that has created a offensive coordinator controversy with Norm Chow, who is highly respected -- and highly paid -- but hasn't lived up to his reputation in Westwood.

It's hard not to see the Bruins trending down after Rick Neuheisel's third season.

So there is the suggestion of a downward trend for both, but there are variables beyond wins and losses in 2010.

USC still awaits a ruling from the NCAA Appeals Committee on severe sanctions, which included a two-year bowl ban and a docking of 30 scholarships over three years. In light of recent reports and ensuing investigations launched across the Eastern Seaboard for far worse offenses involving agents and pay-for-play schemes than what the NCAA turned up after investigating the Trojans football program for four years, it seems reasonable for the Committee to give USC a break.

Don't hold your breath, Trojans fans. But if penalties were reduced, that would provide a significant jolt of positive momentum, particularly if scholarships are restored.

With USC getting trampled by the NCAA, UCLA was supposed to take advantage, particularly in recruiting. At present, however, the Trojans rank 13th in the nation in recruiting, while the Bruins are not ranked in the top-25. USC has 16 commitments with four from the ESPNU 150. UCLA nine commitments with just one from the ESPNU 150.

But it's premature to measure recruiting classes before national signing day on Feb. 2. Recall that Neuheisel has made impressive late runs the past two years.

So, again, rain clouds hang over both programs in sunny Southern California. Neither is happy with this season. And both really, really would like to walk away from 2010 by putting a footprint on the other's forehead.

As for the big-picture trends in the rivalry? Who the heck knows?