Running back Johnathan Franklin (23) and his UCLA teammates will be looking… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
UCLA has done nothing but mess with Texas.
The Bruins take a nine-game winning streak against Texas teams into Saturday's game at Houston. It would be hard to find a better location to open a season of such importance, with Coach Rick Neuheisel's job on the line.
The game looms at least as big in Houston, though, because of the Cougars' Big 12 Conference aspirations. Houston would like a little Street & Smith cred to enhance its chances of joining a conference with Bowl Championship Series ties.
UCLA is the only team from a BCS conference on the Houston schedule this season, and a win over the Bruins would look good on the resume.
The last time UCLA lost to a Texas team was 1979, when Houston came west and won. The last Texas team to beat UCLA in Texas was, yup, Houston, in 1977.
Back then, the Cougars were ranked and part of the powerful Southwest Conference. When the conference imploded after the 1996 season, some teams headed north to the Big 12 and some teams headed south.
The Cougars belong to Conference USA but yearn for the good old days. Texas A&M's decision this week to leave the Big 12 has those in Houston craving an upgrade.
Cougars Coach Kevin Sumlin did a Texas two-step around the issue. "All those meetings, all those decisions, all those things being talked about, I haven't seen one football coach at that table," he said this week. "No one has asked me about going to the Big 12."
But this is Texas football, which easily mixes with Texas politics.
When Colorado and Nebraska left the Big 12 last year, 25 legislators from the Houston area sent conference commissioner Dan Beebe a letter: "The Cougars, the City of Houston and Texas deserve better."
Beebe thought they didn't. His response was that even if the Big 12 looked to expand, it would not expand in "our geographic, five-state area."
Texas A&M reopened that can of worms this week, and even Sumlin can't resist a little politicking.
"Selling out our last five games, with the new stadium around the corner and Houston being a big TV market, if we win a bunch games and get on the national scene, we will be attractive to somebody," he said.
It was an easier sale a year ago. Houston was coming off a 10-4 season that included victories over fifth-ranked Oklahoma State and Texas Tech — both Big 12 teams — as well as Mississippi State.
The Cougars were undefeated and ranked 23rd two weeks into the 2010 season but finished with a 5-7 record — a nose dive that began when Houston became No. 8 in the Bruins' Texas-is-toast streak.
"It will take a great effort, but let's hope we can keep that going," Neuheisel said.
The Bruins' streak against Texas teams doesn't just include easy-on-the-palate meals like Rice. UCLA has chewed up Texas three times and Texas A&M once.
That amazes freshman center Jake Brendel, the only Texan on the UCLA roster.
"It's crazy," said Brendel, who is from East Plano High. "When they beat Texas last year, everyone was in shock. Football is our religion. You're a Longhorns fan or a Texas A&M fan or a Texas Tech fan or you're weird."
UCLA manhandled Texas, 34-12, in Austin and buried Houston, 31-13, at the Rose Bowl last season. And Bruins fans still boast about being "Texas State Champions" in 1997, when the Bruins beat Texas, Houston and Texas A&M.
"When we won at Texas last year, I was expecting a lot of razzing from fans," safety Tony Dye said. "But they were saying 'great game' and stuff like that when we walked through the tunnel.
"Hopefully, Houston has the same type of fans when we come out with a win."