“Playoffs? You kidding me?? Playoffs?”
UCLA Bruins head coach Jim Mora‘s father, Jim E. Mora, uttered those now-famous words while he was head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, but there’s been a lot of talk about playoffs in Los Angeles this week.
College football won’t have a playoff system until 2014, but the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins are essentially facing off in a one-game playoff to represent the South Division in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
UCLA enters the game ranked just above the Trojans, and both teams are seeking a “Win and You’re In” victory over their crosstown rival to clinch the division.
The Bruins are eager to make up for last season’s embarrassing 50-0 debacle, which catapulted USC’s Matt Barkley into the Heisman conversation, helped the Trojans get a preseason No. 1 ranking, and cost former UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel his job.
Coming off their bye week last month, Bruins’ quarterback Brett Hundley said the rest of the season was like the postseason for him.
“These last five games are basically playoffs. Everybody says they remember you for what you do in November, so these five games are going to be a big-time test,” he told reporters.
So far, the Bruins have been up to the test. They’re 3-0 since the bye, scoring at least 44 points in each game and demolishing then-No. 22 Arizona, 66-10, but the game against USC will be quite a different test.
Not only is there so much at stake for the teams’ postseason hopes, there’s pride on the line. Players will face off against their friends, former teammates, even family members. They have a job to do, but this game is personal.
USC senior safety T.J. McDonald, whose father, Tim, was an All-American at USC, will take the field on Saturday against his brother, Tevin, who plays safety for the Bruins.
After last week’s win over Arizona State, T.J. said: “We know how important the final two Pac-12 games are for us – they are like a playoff – so we wanted to come out here today and play well so that we head into the rivalry game against UCLA with full force and a clear head.”
Emotions would be running high for the rivalry game regardless of the circumstances, but these teams are well aware there’s much more at stake in this game than bragging rights.
“This game has a lot of meaning for both of these teams this year,” Barkley said.
USC junior wide receiver Robert Woods, who had 12 catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns against the Bruins last year, knows how much more important this year’s win is:
“We’re playing for a win, playing for a Rose, playing for L.A., pretty much. It’s one of those games where there’s a lot on the line. We’ve just got to play our game, play well, and there’s going to be a big reward at the end.”
That reward is a trip to the conference championship, but an even bigger prize – a Rose Bowl invitation – awaits the Pac-12 Champion.
Earlier this week, when Barkley was asked how he felt heading into his final game against UCLA in the Rose Bowl, he cheerfully responded: “Well, hopefully it’s not our last time playing in the Rose Bowl.”
There’s no guarantee the winner of this game will get back to Pasadena. Whichever team takes the South division still has to beat a tough team from the North. USC has already lost to both Oregon and Stanford this season; UCLA faces Stanford next weekend to close out the year, and they didn’t have the Ducks on their regular season schedule.
USC head coach Lane Kiffin was admittedly “not pleased” with some of the team’s performances recently, but he knows the Trojans still control their destiny.
“A lot of people in the country are not playing for the ability to win their conference, and we are fortunately. We’re in a one-game playoff for the South and then we’ll have another game for the conference championship,” Kiffin said earlier this week.
Playoffs? They don’t start in college football for two more years, but if you want a preview, tune in to the USC-UCLA game today, nationally televised on Fox at 3 p.m. ET.
As Bill Wagner, the executive vice-president of programming and research for Fox Sports Media Group, told The Orange County Register this week: “It’s just like a playoff game.”