The Pac-12 South will be decided by tradition this coming Saturday. With Stanford's place in the conference championship already secured by virtue of its win over Cal in the Big Game, USC and UCLA will duke it out at the Coliseum for the right to represent the South. For the Trojans to win and have a shot at facing the Cardinal, they will have to do something they have not been able to and beat Jim Mora.
USC interim head coach Clay Helton had a chance last week in Oregon to put his stamp on this program. Much like the previous interim head coach, Ed Orgeron, Helton failed to deliver on USC's biggest stages and now he will have one last chance to audition for a job he was likely never going to get. For Helton, UCLA will likely be the first game he is coaching where the pressure is not on and that could work to USC's favor.
With the pressure all but off Helton, he should be free to call a pearl of a game and USC has the athletes to do serious damage when they're running free. The returns of running back Tre Madden, offensive guard Viane Talamaivao, and safety Marvell Tell will add weapons across all three phases of the game for the Trojans. A stocked cabinet for the Trojans may just give them the edge they need in this game with UCLA missing many key players because of season-ending injuries earlier in the year.
Quarterback Cody Kessler will enter the Coliseum for the final time as USC's signal caller. The senior leader has been through more than most of his peers and has stood tall for the Trojans during it all. After a 30-of-41 for 238 yards and two-touchdown performance against Oregon, Kessler will be hungry to close out his career on a high note. A win over UCLA is something Kessler has yet to experience as a starter and you can be sure it's near the top of his bucket list.
On the flip side, UCLA will be aiming for its second Pac-12 Championship Game appearance under Jim Mora and its third overall since the creation of the game back in 2011. Mora has yet to lose to the Trojans and his wins over USC have come by an average of 16.33 points. In fact, none of Mora's wins have been by fewer than 10 points. The job Mora has done with the Bruins has been nothing short of impressive. Mora has completely reenergized the program and the university.
What happens on Saturday will go a long way toward shaping the college football landscape in Los Angeles. Mora's name will surely be on the list of people doing the hiring at the professional and collegiate ranks. With over 10 jobs open in college alone, many of which are big programs, Mora could be at the top of the list for any number of jobs. A fourth straight win over USC might encourage him to take his show to an LSU or even a South Carolina. On the flip side of that, a dominant win over UCLA could increase Helton's chances of landing the job he covets so dearly.
Simply put, there is far more than a conference championship on the line this Saturday.
UCLA at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 28 at3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: USC -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. USC's Pass Rush and Protection
The Trojans have had major issues protecting Cody Kessler. While there should be no mistaking the fact that Kessler hangs on to the ball too long, this is a USC offensive line that is ranked No. 102 in the nation in sacks allowed. The Trojans have had four games where their opponents have had four or more sacks. They allowed five sacks on three different occasions — Arkansas State, Oregon, and Washington. UCLA enters the game No. 37 in the nation in total sacks.
USC has been able to generate pressure and that is something it will need to do against UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen. The Trojans' much maligned defensive line has launched itself to No. 12 in the nation in total sacks. Rosen has struggled when he's been placed under duress, but he has proven himself more than capable of creating when the blitz is on. The Trojans will need to get pressure on Rosen, but they will also need to contain his legs and ability to create out of the pocket. It's a daunting task and one that the Trojans failed at against Oregon. True freshman or not, Rosen can beat you in many different ways.
2. Expect the Flags to Fly Freely
The Trojans are checking into this game averaging 70.4 penalty yards per game (No. 116) and they are 113th in the nation in penalties per game (7.6). UCLA is even worse. The Bruins come in at No. 123 in the nation in total penalties, averaging 75.5 yards of penalties a game and 8.6 flags a game. The Bruins are No. 125 in the nation in flags per game. This game should truly make Pac-12 officials thankful and may even qualify as an early Christmas present.
At this point in the season, it's ridiculous to think USC will trim the penalties. But perhaps it can avoid making mistakes when it matters most, starting with the offensive line. If the Trojans can eliminate costly procedural penalties and holds, their offense is one of the most dangerous in the country. More often than not, USC stalls out its own drives with mistakes more than anything its opponents do. Coaches won't win big games using this as a strategy.
3. Enjoy the Show
With rivalries falling by the wayside due to conference realignments, personal issues, and any other number of reasons, the Trojans and Bruins playing in a game that matters is a breath of fresh air. There are a dearth of important rivalry games coming up this Saturday because of the way the season has unfolded, but this won't be one of them. It's certainly something to enjoy in a season filled with chaos.
The winner of this game has a real chance to upset Stanford's outside hopes for a bid for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Even though the Cardinal are on the outside looking in, they are only a small bit of help away from being right back in the thick of things. The Trojans would love nothing more than a second bite at an apple they felt was theirs. UCLA hasn't been able to shed the Stanford monkey from its back, in fact that monkey is beginning to turn into a gorilla. Neither team would be short of motivation going into the Pac-12 Championship game.
USC simply has not shown enough improvement under Helton to think that UCLA can't do exactly what it has been doing in the past. Oregon proved the Trojans haven't really addressed what ails them and Mora is smart enough to take advantage of that. Whether it's the penalties that hurt USC on promising drives, the tendency to put USC behind the chains on first down, or a general lack of awareness that the middle of the field exists, the Trojans simply are who they are and UCLA is built to exploit that.
What the Bruins do so well is where the Trojans come up short. Mora's quarterbacks have always excelled at creating out of the pocket and improvising on the run. USC defenders have struggled to make tackles in the backfield and missed chances have come back to bite them in the worst ways. UCLA's rushing attack is more than adequate and has been crucial in bringing Rosen along as well as they have. It just hasn't been a good matchup for the Trojans in recent years.
The Trojans normally win at home, but Mora has proven he can beat USC handily in the Coliseum and did so the last time USC had an interim coach. With all of the same problems still there for USC, wouldn't it be illogical to expect a different result while trying the same thing over and over again?
Prediction: UCLA 38, USC 27
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for Reign Of Troy, USC’s FanSided affiliate. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.