The UCLA Bruins and the USC Trojans will renew their bitter crosstown college football rivalry at the Coliseum on Saturday in the 81st annual battle for the Victory Bell.
The Bruins are still battling for the top of the Pac-12 South and a berth in the inaugural conference championship game that comes with it, while the Trojans, still banned from the bowl season by the NCAA, will be playing for pride, a 10-win season and the chance to build up more momentum heading into 2012.
Tommy Trojan has trounced Joe Bruin in each of their last four meetings and 11 of the last 12 overall.
Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, California
When: Saturday, November 26th at 10:00 p.m. EST
Watch: Fox Sports Net
Listen: 710 ESPN, UCLABruins.com, USCTrojans.com
Betting Line: USC -14.5 (according to sportsbook.com)
Key Storyline: Who's the True Champion of the South?
In any other year, USC (9-2, 6-2 in the Pac-12) would've already wrapped up the Pac-12 South and a spot in the conference title game. However, thanks to the NCAA fallout from the Reggie Bush scandal, the Trojans are ineligible to play after Saturday, leaving the door open for archrival UCLA (6-5, 5-4 in the Pac-12) to waltz right into the mix.
Well, sort of.
The Bruins still have to either beat 'SC or have Utah lose to lowly Colorado to officially clinch the South. If the Bruins and the Utes both lose and Arizona State beats Cal, then the Sun Devils will sneak their way into a season-ending matchup with Oregon or Stanford.
Either way, the Trojans have been the best team in the division all season, dropping the Ducks in Eugene this past Saturday and nearly upending the Cardinal in late October. A win for 'SC would further confirm that notion while keeping bragging rights closer to downtown.
For the Bruins, though, topping the Trojans would mean far more than just an improbable shot at the Rose Bowl. More than anything, it would give UCLA the satisfaction of its first win over USC since the famed 13-9 thriller in 2006, while sparing Rick Neuheisel's head from the proverbial chopping block.
Who Might Not Play for UCLA:
DB Alex Mascarenas (concussion), LB Jordan Zumwalt (hip)
Who Might Not Play for USC:
DB Torin Harris (shoulder), LB Dion Bailey (ankle), LB Lamar Dawson (ankle)
USC can't play in the BCS on account of a postseason ban, but UCLA might yet sneak their way in. A win over the Trojans would guarantee the Bruins a spot in the Pac-12 title game, giving them a chance to win the conference's automatic bid and play in the Rose Bowl.
What They're Saying:
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero and USC athletic director Pat Haden released a joint statement this week encouraging fans of both schools to conduct themselves respectfully and nonviolently at the Coliseum on Saturday:
"A big part of making this day safe and enjoyable for everyone is the conduct of both fan bases. We ask you to please respect the rivalry, respect each other, and bring the same level of sportsmanship to the game that we expect of our players."
The preemptive message comes in response to the events outside of the Rose Bowl at last year's game, during which two fans were stabbed during a brawl in the parking lot.
UCLA Player to Watch: Kevin Prince
When Kevin Prince plays solid, mistake-free football, the Bruins win. When Prince turns the ball over and/or gets injured, they lose.
It's that simple.
UCLA will look to Prince to run the Pistol offense and complete the occasional pass to Joseph Fauria and Nelson Rosario without getting crushed by USC's linebackers. If he can do that much, the Bruins will have a legitimate chance to come away with a win.
USC Player to Watch: Matt Barkley
This figures to be Matt Barkley's final game as a collegian, unless (for whatever reason) he decides to turn down the millions of dollars that await him as a top-five pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
As such, Barkley will look to cap his spectacular season, not to mention a historically prolific career at USC, with a big game against the crosstown-rival Bruins. He's managed only subpar stats against the Bruins, averaging 202 yards per game while throwing more picks (three) than touchdowns (two) in the two contests in which he's taken part.
If Barkley is to emerge as a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy, he'll need to take advantage of this game as a showcase for his considerable skills.
Key Matchup: Robert Woods and Marqise Lee vs. UCLA's defensive backs
Sensational sophomore Robert Woods and freshman phenom Marqise Lee may well be the best receiving tandem in college football. They've already combined for 22 touchdowns and well over 2,000 yards receiving. Lee, in particular, has come on strong of late, with more than 100 yards in two of the Trojans' last three contests.
These two figure to give the Bruins' banged-up defensive backs fits, to say the least. Former walk-on Andrew Abbott has stepped up in a big way this season, notching two picks against Colorado to assert himself as UCLA's most reliable corner. He'll need plenty of help from the likes of Tevin McDonald and Sheldon Price to keep 'SC's speedsters in check.
On the Hot Seat: Rick Neuheisel
This game is shaping up to be the last stand for "Slick Rick." The UCLA alum has yet to top the Trojans since his triumphant return to Westwood, when he declared in the local papers that "The Monopoly is Over."
Since then, Neuheisel has done nothing but bolster 'SC's stronghold on college football in the region. While Neuheisel has stewarded his Bruins to a 20-26 record, highlighted by a trip to the EagleBank Bowl, Lane Kiffin has cleaned up on the field and in recruiting, despite the NCAA bringing the hammer down on Heritage Hall.
If Neuheisel loses this game and the Bruins fail to win the South as a result, look for athletic director Dan Guerrero to either act swiftly in firing his football coach or wait until the public outcry grows so immense that he has no other choice.
Prediction: UCLA 20, USC 17
The Bruins are desperate to win this game in every which way and will play like it on Saturday. USC's only objective here is pride, while UCLA is playing for a spot in the Pac-12 title game as well as its coach's survival. The Trojans have a big advantage in talent, but the Bruins get the nod for motivation.