The preseason No. 1 USC Trojans have dropped three games in 2012, while the cross-town rival UCLA Bruins have immediately shot in the right direction under first-year head coach Jim Mora, Jr. When the two teams square off in the Rose Bowl on Saturday, the Trojans' disappointment will continue.
Unlike in recent years, this rivalry is actually perceived as a close competition. The Trojans are favored as usual, yet there is a sense that this Bruins team could pull this one out. After all, UCLA is 17th in the latest AP poll, while their opponent is ranked No. 21.
It's been a while since that's happened, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
USC QB Matt Barkley and his Heisman-caliber receiver Marqise Lee will headline as the renowned star players. But Bruins redshirt freshman Brett Hundley has been extremely impressive, establishing himself as the man under center for the foreseeable future.
Other than an erratic, four-interception showing in the shocking loss at Cal, Hundley has had a spectacular season that has been completely overlooked by much of the country's college football fans. He's thrown for 24 touchdowns and just nine picks, completing 69 percent of his passes.
But Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin has certainly taken notice. ESPN Los Angeles reporter Pedro Moura documented Kiffin's demeanor as he looked at film of Hundley and UCLA's spread attack. Kiffin was bewildered that a freshman was playing so well and making so few mistakes.
Even though the Trojans will have to also account for Hundley's solid mobility, senior Bruins running back Johnathan Franklin will be a hand full for Monte Kiffin's defense in his own right.
Franklin's 1270 yards rushing are eighth in the nation, even in spite of Hundley's emergence. That incredible balance rivals that of the Trojans' high-octane offense, but Barkley arguably has the best receiver duo in the nation at his disposal in Lee and Robert Woods.
The X-factor in this matchup will prove to be junior Bruins linebacker Anthony Barr, who ranks fourth in the nation with 11 sacks.
He will be able to get pressure on Barkley, who has suffered at times from shoddy protection. Barkley has also tended to force the ball into coverage, which will especially be the case if the Trojans are trailing.
Considering how putrid the USC defense has been so frequently during the 2012 season, it's conceivable that the unit would get chewed up for chunks of yards yet again. It happened against the prolific point-scorers Oregon and Arizona, and the Bruins present another similar spread scheme that the Trojans couldn't stop previously.
Surprisingly, the less-experienced signal caller for UCLA is less mistake-prone and capable of producing just as big of plays, with an even better running game to back him up.
When the Bruins win, they will have an opportunity to face Oregon in the conference championship game. Meanwhile, USC will continue to scratch their heads and wonder what this 2012 campaign could have been.