UCLA Coach Terry Donahue calls USC a "very, very good football team that has had some misfortunes."
Those misfortunes are expected to continue today at the Coliseum in the 55th game of the crosstown rivalry.
The Bruins (8-1-1 overall and 6-1 in the Pacific 10) have been playing confidently and consistently and would go to the Rose Bowl if they beat the Trojans (4-5 and 3-3).
Donahue and UCLA partisans are concerned, though, that the Trojans may be a sleeping giant, a team that hasn't played to its capability this season.
There is also another opinion, that what you see is what you get. Perhaps, the Trojans are only as good as their losing record indicates. Although emotional considerations can't be ignored in this intense rivalry, it wouldn't seem logical for USC to make a complete turnaround this late in the season.
UCLA is on a roll, having won its six games since a 21-14 loss to Washington on Sept. 28. USC is still groping for a winning spark, having lost three of its last four games.
The Trojans are hoping that Rodney Peete, a redshirt freshman quarterback, will be able to revive a somewhat stagnant offense. Peete gave USC another dimension with his ability to run as well as pass in a 20-17 loss to Washington last Saturday.
Peete is talented, to be sure, but today's game is a demanding assignment for such an inexperienced player. UCLA's Tom Ramsey was the last freshman quarterback to start in this game, in 1979, and his team was shelled by USC, 49-14.
It's believed, though, that Donahue would rather try to devise a defense for veteran Sean Salisbury, a less mobile quarterback who lost his No. 1 status to Peete last week.
"Rodney is difficult to prepare for, because he makes things happen," Donahue said. "He turns mediocre plays into real big plays. I would compare him to Tony Robinson of Tennessee. He has the same athletic speed and talent but he is not as tall."
Whether or not USC has found a new offensive threat in Peete, the Bruins have a complete arsenal. They're the Pac-10's leading rushing team, averaging 219 yards a game.
Several backs have contributed to this total, including tailback Gaston Green, a breakaway type, who hurt USC last year when he rushed for 134 yards as UCLA won, 29-10.
"With Green, UCLA has a back with great vision and explosion who can go all the way," USC Coach Ted Tollner said.
The Trojan tailbacks, Ryan Knight and Fred Crutcher, get their yardage in smaller chunks. Freshman Aaron Emanuel has shown glimpses of his big-play ability this season. But he has a sprained ankle and is questionable for today's game.
There are other factors contributing to UCLA being a 6 1/2-point favorite.
The Bruins lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing opponents an average of only 60.1 yards a game. They have played several passing teams this season, but that doesn't negate the statistic.
"It's a very quick defense," said Frank Falks, who coaches USC's running backs. "They do a heck of a job converging on the ball. They have great team speed and they use it to their advantage."
UCLA also has a capable quarterback in David Norrie, the Pac-10's passing efficiency leader. He has completed 63.2% of his passes for 1,641 yards and 10 touchdowns, with 8 interceptions.
His receivers are first-rate--Karl Dorrell, Willie Anderson and Mike Sherrard, who is available now after being inactive earlier with a shoulder injury.
But John Lee may be the ultimate weapon. Whenever the Bruins get good field-goal position, they're almost assured of three points from this splendid kicker, who has made 19 of 22 attempts this season and could be a No. 1 NFL draft choice.
Lee kicked \o7 five \f7 field goals against USC last year as the Bruins took advantage of five Trojan turnovers.
Add up all these factors, and it seems probable that UCLA will beat USC for an unprecedented fourth straight time and the fifth time in the last six years.
That would be a heavy load for USC to bear. There is also considerable pressure on Tollner, who is 0-5 against traditional rivals UCLA and Notre Dame since he became USC's coach in 1983. He could become the first Trojan coach to lose three straight years to both schools.
He also faces the prospect of a losing season, his second in three years, although he coached USC to the Pac-10 championship and a Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State last season.
Tollner says that the only pressure on him is to win and that external factors don't add to it.
USC has no postseason bowl game to look forward to, other than the season-ending Mirage Bowl game against Oregon next Saturday in Tokyo.
UCLA has more at stake in today's game, so USC's motivation will be pride and an opportunity to knock UCLA out of the Rose Bowl. There are only a few USC players left from the last team that beat UCLA, in 1981, and they were inactive reserves at the time.