Week 11: LA CFB State of the Union

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It’s been a while since we’ve checked in with the Trojans and Bruins. I swear it’s not because USC got its teeth kicked in by Notre Dame since the last time I blogged about college football. I’ll try not to gloss over it—here are full highlights from the Week 8 massacre:

When Josh Adams and Brandon Wimbush torched the Trojans in South Bend, it felt like USC had sealed another spectacular failure of a season, returning to the program’s recent depressing trend after brief Rose Bowl glory last January. To a certain degree, that’s still true. Clay Helton and his squad said they were aiming for a conference championship coming into the season, but in reality, everyone knows the true goal this year was the College Football Playoff. Returning then-Heisman favorite Sam Darnold and one of the best running backs in the country in Ronald Jones II along with a host of playmakers on defense, the Trojans must have considered themselves one of the top four teams in the nation. Their trip to Notre Dame definitively proved otherwise.

Since that nightmare, though, the tone around USC has shifted slightly. Back-to-back high-scoring wins over Arizona State and Arizona certainly helped (though last weekend’s near-collapse against the Wildcats was cause for concern), as did losses further up the rankings. The Trojan offense is leading the rally: After looking out-of-sync for pretty much the entire season, things are coming together more often for Darnold and company.

USC can clinch the Pac-12 South with a win at Colorado this weekend. The playoff dream is long dead—even assuming a perfect finish and Pac-12 title—but the Trojans (8-2) are quietly still compiling a strong campaign. If the Rose Bowl weren’t acting as a playoff game this season, USC would be chasing a return New Year’s trip to Pasadena. As it stands, pundits are projecting the Trojans to make an intriguing, brand-name bowl (Cotton or Fiesta are the popular picks right now) against another top-20 team. People were calling for Helton’s head just two weeks ago, but USC is actually poised for its strongest two-season stretch in the post-Pete Carroll era—provided it can execute over the next month.

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The Trojans may not be having a perfect season, but it’s still a helluva lot better than the dumpster fire across town. UCLA was never going to be a serious contender this year thanks to an atrocious defense, but an injury to superstar quarterback Josh Rosen has sent things off the rails altogether. Rosen was forced out of the Bruins’ Week 9 loss to Washington with a finger injury and didn’t travel to Utah last weekend due to a reported concussion (UCLA got creamed 48-17). After opening the year with a spectacular comeback victory over Texas A&M, the Bruins now sit at 4-5 overall with a 2-4 conference mark that puts them second-last in the Pac-12 South.

Rosen is expected to return against Arizona State this week. His return is even more necessary after sophomore backup Devon Modster fractured his thumb against the Utes. But where do the Bruins go from here? If Rosen departs for the NFL after this season as expected, UCLA will lose one of the few elite weapons in the program—and the team has never fought for the Pac-12 championship even with Rosen in the fold. The future doesn’t look bright in Westwood.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the third-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 class, remains committed to UCLA, but Jim Mora is obviously on the hot seat as he hemorrhages recruits and steers his team toward a second consecutive losing season. It’s hard to see him sticking around if he can’t manage to pull out two wins from his final three games (versus Arizona State, USC, and Cal) to make the Bruins bowl-eligible. That’s no easy feat, either: ASU and Cal both boast signature wins this season—the Sun Devils’ over Washington and the Bears’ over Washington State—and you can’t fancy UCLA’s chances in a rivalry matchup at USC.

Fortunately for Mora, the games against Arizona State and Cal will be at the Rose Bowl, where the Bruins are actually undefeated this season (it’s actually a shocking dichotomy: UCLA has won every single home game this season while losing all five of its tilts on the road). Just don’t expect much of a crowd to show up to cheer them on—the Rose Bowl was barely at half-capacity when the Bruins last played at home against Oregon in Week 8.

If UCLA drops the ball against ASU, next weekend’s matchup at the Coliseum will probably decide Mora’s fate. And hey, if the Trojans manage to bungle their chance to clinch the division in Boulder, then Helton’s job may be in question as well. It’s funny: We all pegged the USC/UCLA matchup as the No. 1 draft pick bowl between Darnold and Rosen in the preseason, but after a bizarre season of college football, one of those superstar signal callers might just get his head coach fired.

Enjoy the weekend!

P.S. As I was writing this blog, USC jumped up six spots to No. 11 in this week’s CFP rankings.

There are potentially three games left in the season, including the Pac-12 title game. So you’re saying there’s a chance?

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