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COVER STORY

Talk of the town

Expectations are high for USC and UCLA, and they could both be 11-0 when they meet Dec. 1 with a national-title-game berth on the line.

September 01, 2007|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

What if college football's end game this season didn't involve Baton Rouge or Tallahassee and had nothing to do with the kids: Norman, Madison, Eugene, Austin or Ann Arbor?

What if the biggest national news was, not loco, but local?

Say you pulled out a map, took a math compass, stuck the needle at downtown and extended the pointer to Westwood, then penciled a giant, sweeping arc, and that was your circumference?

Say the major ramifications came to a head under our face-lifts, in a town with no NFL football, no Kobe Bryant resolution, no Elton Brand with the Clippers, no Dodgers in the playoffs, and possibly no foothold secured by David Beckham?

What if, come Dec. 1 at the Coliseum, USC was 11-0 and, gulp, so was UCLA?

And maybe this time, a USC defender intercepts a last-second pass to keep UCLA out of the national title game.

You could laugh out loud, or dream out loud.

"I know I want to see it," UCLA senior cornerback Rodney Van said with a big grin. "I know SC would want to see it. It would be probably the showdown of the century. I don't know the last time it's happened. It's been a while. And L.A. is all about what have you done for me lately. If both teams are performing, and we get to 11-0, Dec. 1, it's going to be a showdown."

Last year in Columbus, No. 1 Ohio State hosted No. 2 Michigan in one of the most can't-get-here-soon-enough games in college football history, and the after-argument was whether the loser deserved a rematch in the championship game.

"It would be exactly like Ohio State-Michigan," Van said of an undefeated matchup featuring USC and UCLA.

The ramp-up to 2007 began in Pasadena last December, when UCLA scored its upset over USC to deny the Trojans a trip to the Bowl Championship Series title game.

A rivalry got ratcheted that day with a buzz not felt in years. Remember, during a timeout, when players from both benches emptied and bounced up and down like pogo sticks as they swapped frenzied stares?

Van senses a (US)sea change.

"It's not one side where everyone wants to go to USC or everyone wants to go to UCLA," he said. "It's splitting down the middle and allowing us to have two good teams in L.A. Since there's no pro football, it's kind of what everyone wants to see; to have two good college teams competing here year in and year out."

The waiting this year might be the hardest part.

USC was always going to enter 2007 at No. 1, but its toughest games were always going to be "ats" -- at Nebraska, at Notre Dame, at California, at Oregon, at Arizona Sate.

UCLA was going to enter 2007 with eyes on the prize in Karl Dorrell's fifth season. Not as touted as the cross-town cover boys, the Bruins would be built to win with 20 starters and 25 seniors returning.

USC might have a tougher road to 11-0 if only because of the schedule; UCLA's path to perfect might be more pliable.

The Bruins' toughest challenges come at home. They get Brigham Young, without quarterback John Beck, on Sept. 8.

They get a do-over against Notre Dame on Oct. 6 after dominating all but the final minute of last year's game in South Bend. UCLA gains quarterback Ben Olson, who was injured for the Irish skirmish, while Notre Dame lost its starting quarterback, tailback and two wide receivers.

UCLA also plays Cal at home, and Arizona State, and Oregon.

The anticipation is palpable.

Last week, after practice in Westwood, in front of the Bud Knapp Football Center, Olson towered over a gaggle of kid autograph-cravers, happily obliging by signing the backs, fronts and collars of their shirts.

"This is the reason I chose to come here to UCLA," Olson said, "to play big-time college football, to be in L.A, to play at an elite level."

Olson cautioned that before you get to 11 wins you have to get to one, but he was willing to ponder the possibility.

"The idea of it would be amazing," Olson said. "But you've got to take care of business every week, otherwise. . . "

He didn't need to finish the sentence.

Projecting two teams to 11-0 is a lot like drawing to an inside straight -- it has to be in the cards.

And yet, it has been years since these schools both entered a fall campaign with this kind of hype.

USC is No. 1 in the Associated Press' preseason poll; UCLA is No. 14. That's an average poll ranking of 7 1/2 , the highest since the schools entered 1989 with an AP average of seven (USC was No. 5; UCLA was No. 9).

WARNING: Lofty preseason rankings do not a season-ending showdown make.

What could possibly go wrong?

In 1989, USC and UCLA careened off course early by both losing their home openers and the "big" showdown game that year was a dud 10-10 tie.

USC finished 9-2-1 after beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl; UCLA limped in at 3-7-1.

OK, but what about 1988?

Entering the year with an AP poll average of 6 1/2 , only UCLA's loss to Washington State prevented a showdown of undefeated teams.

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