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Still a lot on the line in USC-UCLA game

Bruins are in Pac-12 championship game, but their coach's future isn't secure. Trojans are looking at a top-10 season and possible national title bid next year.

November 25, 2011|By Gary Klein
  • UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel, left, and USC Coach Lane Kiffin will lead the Bruins and Trojans into battle during the 81st edition of the schools' rivalry game.
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel, left, and USC Coach Lane Kiffin will lead the… (Photos by Luis Sinco and…)

Not to be overly dramatic or anything, but when UCLA plays USC in the 81st football game between the rivals, something pretty huge will be at stake.

How about the future of both programs?

For UCLA, it's the short term. It's survival for Coach Rick Neuheisel. And, astonishingly, with Colorado's upset win against Utah on Friday, a chance to possibly conclude the season in the Rose Bowl — or no bowl game at all.

For No. 10 USC, it's a chance to build on a signature victory, for Coach Lane Kiffin to keep momentum going into a recruiting season that will be unlike any other in Trojans history and to possibly set his team up for a national title run two years after being hammered by the NCAA.

"These are long memories," Neuheisel said. "It's better to make them good ones."

Neuheisel might be only a memory as the Bruins coach unless he beats the Trojans on Saturday night at the Coliseum and leads his team past Oregon or Stanford in the Pac-12 Conference title game.

The Bruins are 6-5 overall and 5-3 in conference play. However, if they don't win either of their next two games, they would have a sub-.500 record and have to petition the NCAA in order to be eligible for a bowl game.

Forget that Neuheisel said this week that the Bruins had "closed the gap more" with the Trojans. He is 0-3 against USC, 21-27 overall in four seasons and the recruiting divide with USC seems to be growing larger.

The former Bruins quarterback has been on the hot seat since before the season began. It grew scalding during an Oct. 20 blowout loss at Arizona that included a bench-clearing incident.

But Neuheisel rallied his team for victories over California and then-division leader Arizona State, which subsequently folded. Meantime, UCLA got routed at Utah and then rebounded by blowing out Colorado.

So here are the Bruins, 14-point underdogs against a Trojans team coming off an upset victory that ended Oregon's shot at a Bowl Championship Series title.

Asked this week if he thought he had to beat USC to save his job, Neuheisel said, "I don't," adding, "All that other stuff is on someone else's desk."

That would be the desk of Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, who, if he has not already decided to do so, would surely keep the coach he hired if the Bruins defeat their rival and then win the Pac-12 title game next week.

"One of the goals we established as a team when we entered camp this fall was to play for the first-ever Pac-12 title," Neuheisel said in a statement after Colorado defeated Utah. "Keeping in mind that we are still focused on beating USC tomorrow night, we are certainly excited to represent the South Division on December 2nd in the conference championship game."

Earlier in the week, noting that a UCLA victory over USC would give the Bruins the South title whether the Trojans were eligible or not, Neuheisel said, "There is no asterisk on it if we win it."

USC, of course, has a monopoly on asterisks.

The Trojans' media guide includes hundreds of them courtesy of NCAA sanctions related to former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.

Were it not for a two-year bowl ban, and the Pac-12's decision to also deem them ineligible for the conference title game, the Trojans would be playing to stay alive for the Rose Bowl.

Now, they can't even play spoiler by keeping UCLA out of the Pac-12 title game. But they could send a message that their monopoly on L.A.-area college football is nowhere near over.

"You kind of grow up to hate 'em living in L.A," USC receiver Robert Woods said of the Bruins.

USC's 38-35 victory last week at Eugene, Ore., propelled the Trojans back into the top 10 in the Associated Press media poll and quarterback Matt Barkley into the Heisman Trophy discussion.

"It's a big testament to this team," Barkley said, "how we've fought through adversity and how we've had the courage to withstand all the junk that's been going on around here."

If Barkley leads the Trojans to victory over the Bruins, USC would finish 10-2 heading into the first of three years of recruiting restrictions during which Kiffin can sign only 15 players each year.

A victory also might help Kiffin convince Barkley, offensive tackle Matt Kalil, safety T.J. McDonald and defensive end Nick Perry — or some combination — that they should put off entering the NFL draft for a shot at winning a national title.

USC has won 11 of the last 12 games against UCLA, including the last four.

"It would be rough to leave here without beating the Trojans," said Taylor Embree, a senior receiver for UCLA. "That is something you don't want to have on your resume."

His coach would no doubt agree.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

Times staff writer Chris Foster contributed to this report.

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