UCLA head coach Jim Mora watches the clock wind down during the fourth quarter… (Alex Gallardo / Associated…)
UCLA fans should remember Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott on their holiday shopping excursions.
Without him, where would the Bruins be right now? Probably waiting for a Sun Bowl invitation.
Scott's money grab for the conference included creating a championship game, which required 12 teams split into two divisions. If not for that, UCLA would have been the Pac-12's fourth-place team this season.
Instead, the Bruins play Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game Friday, with the winner going to the Rose Bowl.
"Had we not been in this scenario, we'd finish two games out of first place," UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. "Now we can win the conference, but it will take a heck of an effort Friday."
The Bruins are certainly not interlopers. They earned their way to the conference title game by beating everyone in the Pac-12 South Division.
But the power resides in the north since the conference went to divisional play last season after adding Utah and Colorado. Stanford and Oregon each had 8-1 conference records this season. Oregon State and UCLA were 6-3.
The Rose Bowl would have more or less been decided in Eugene, Ore., two weeks ago when Stanford beat Oregon.
"We adopted our divisional system two years ago and are pleased with its ability to create excitement for fans and teams across the conference," Scott said.
The setup allowed the Bruins to stumble at the start of conference play and recover. They lost two of their first three games. The 43-17 loss to California on Oct. 6 would have all but ended UCLA's Rose Bowl chances in the past.
"It happened early in the season," Mora said. "We could still keep going."
Even if the Bruins are not Rose Bowl-bound, they could stay close to home for the Holiday … Bowl.
If not headed for Pasadena on Jan. 1, UCLA will be picked for the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 28 or Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27. Oregon State would be the other Pac-12 team in play. Oregon is likely headed to the Fiesta Bowl.
"If the Alamo Bowl takes Oregon State, then it is between UCLA and USC," said Bruce Binkoswki, executive director of the San Diego Bowl Game Assn., which produces the Holiday Bowl and the Poinsettia Bowl. "UCLA beat USC, that's how we would look at it."
There may be other ways to view it, since bowl game officials often negotiate with each other to arrive at favorable matchups.
UCLA would be more likely to sell its ticket allotment for the Holiday Bowl in San Diego rather than Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.
The Holiday Bowl could also use the boost from having a team from the Los Angeles television market. The game's title-sponsor contract with Bridgepoint Education expires after this year, though the company has an option to renew for 2013.
Binkowski said the Holiday Bowl does not make selections based on tickets sales by schools or television markets. However, he added, "We have never had UCLA, USC or Stanford in our game. If we had the opportunity, we would certainly welcome it."
On the run
What does Mora see as a big key to Friday's rematch with Stanford?
No surprise: Johnathan Franklin.
The senior running back had only 65 yards in 21 carries when Stanford defeated UCLA, 35-17, in the regular-season finale last Saturday.
"We're at our best when he's rolling," Mora said. "We've got to stay in position in terms of the score so we can feed him the ball late in the game and he can make those big plays that he has made for us all year long."
Franklin needs 66 yards to break Karim Abdul-Jabbar's UCLA single-season rushing record of 1,571 yards, set in 1995.