Despite extending its unbeaten streak in Pac-12 play to six games in a 47-29 win over Colorado, No. 23 USC won't be playing for a conference championship game appearance in next week's rivalry showdown with UCLA.
Nevertheless, the Trojans have plenty at stake in the regular season finale beyond bringing the Victory Bell back to Heritage Hall.
Arizona State's defeat of UCLA sewed up the Pac-12 South's chances of making the title game. The Sun Devils hold the tiebreaker over USC, which they earned in a decision that feels like a lifetime ago.
Interim head coach Ed Orgeron calls this second half of the Trojans' schedule, starting with the Oct. 10 win over Arizona, the "new season." USC has responded by playing like an entirely new team, rebounding from a disappointing, 3-2 overall and 0-2 Pac-12 start to rip off six in its last seven.
USC's "new season" marked the beginning of a new era, and the Trojans' finish to 2013 sets the foundation. While USC has dealt with hefty NCAA sanctions, UCLA began building its program.
The Bruins solidified their 2012 Pac-12 South championship by defeating the Trojans. That win helped steal away some of the thunder USC long monopolized. UCLA has built on it by spending the entire 2013 season ranked.
The battle for Los Angeles gridiron prominence is taking on a significance befitting its animus, as linebacker/safety Dion Bailey conveyed to Los Angeles Daily News reporter Scott Wolf after the Colorado win:
Dion Bailey said UCLA game is bigger "especially because they think they are better than us." #USC— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) November 24, 2013
The rivalry is also developing into a full-fledged arms race for the future of the conference. Bruins head coach Jim Mora wants his program to take the next step to national prominence. USC wants to return to that apex it occupied both in the conference, and among college football at large, throughout the 2000s.
USC is also playing for Orgeron in more ways than one. Several Trojans have given the interim their endorsement to become the program's long-term solution, including freshman safety Su'a Cravens, who told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times after last week's pivotal win over Stanford, "Coach O needs to be here next year…we want Coach O next year. Forget the hiring, forget all that. We got Coach O and that's all we need."
Every win makes athletic director Pat Haden's decision that much more difficult. But another defeat of a ranked opponent, and a rival to boot, may be the strongest case USC players can make for their beloved leader.
And for Orgeron, whether he lands the position full-time or not, beating the Bruins is an opportunity to etch his name into the history of a program where he's spent the bulk of his coaching career.
Orgeron's appreciation for his chance is evident every time he speaks with media. Whether it's a press conference, teleconference or sideline interview, like the one he gave Pac-12 Network Saturday, Orgeron ends each correspondence with a hearty "Fight On," in his unmistakable Cajun growl.
If he leads the Trojans to a defeat of UCLA, one can bet Orgeron's enthusiasm will be cranked up to a championship level, even if there's no title on the line.