USC Coach Pete Carroll revels in the excitement that accompanies the annual USC-UCLA game, but from a competitive standpoint there hasn't been a huge difference between recently dispatched Arizona and the Bruins during Carroll's brief reign.
USC defeated UCLA, 27-0, in the 2001 regular-season finale to give Carroll his first shutout.
On Sunday, with the 73rd game between the schools less than a week away, Carroll played political football when asked to address the Trojans' dominance over the Bruins the last two years.
"We played well in the games both here and at their place," Carroll said. "The games came at the end of the season when we were improving in both years."
A year later, little has changed. Second-ranked USC, which gave Carroll his fourth shutout by defeating Arizona, 45-0, is once again pursuing a BCS berth.
The stakes, however, are considerably higher for the Trojans, who are 9-1 overall and 5-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference entering Saturday's sold-out game at the Coliseum, where USC has a 13-game winning streak.
Last season, twice-defeated USC was only flirting with a chance to play for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl before it defeated UCLA for the fourth year in a row. Miami and Ohio State, both unbeaten, ascended to the title game and USC wound up routing Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
On Saturday, the Trojans could enter their game against the 6-5 Bruins as the No. 2 team in the BCS standings. Victories over UCLA and Oregon State -- and a Michigan win over Ohio State on Saturday -- probably would put the Trojans on track to play top-ranked Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
"It's a little clearer where we stand if you're going to look at what the possibilities are," said Carroll, who is 9-0 in November games at USC. "We didn't know what the possibilities were last year."
Asked if he would be a Michigan fan on Saturday, Carroll said, "I like the maize and blue."
After the blowout against Arizona on Saturday, USC players said the potential chance to play in New Orleans on Jan. 4 would not distract them against a UCLA team that lost to Oregon, 31-13.
"We're not going to get caught up in our ranking or anything like that.... [UCLA] Coach [Karl] Dorrell is going to have them ready to go," wide receiver Mike Williams said after catching three touchdown passes.
A UCLA victory would not only rate as one of the biggest upsets of the season, it also would clinch a bowl berth for the Bruins.
Carroll described UCLA (4-3 in the Pac-10) as a "very good defensive football team."
USC quarterback Matt Leinart, who ranks fifth in the nation in passing efficiency, will operate against a Bruin defense that ranks first in the Pac-10 against the pass (195.9 yards a game) and second in total defense (308.7).
"It's going to be a great game," said Leinart, who has thrown 28 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. "They are going to be fired up just like we are."
Carroll said he is waiting to gauge the status of fullback Brandon Hancock, who sprained his left knee against Arizona, and linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Melvin Simmons, who did not play because of injuries.
Hancock is scheduled to have an MRI exam today. Grootegoed (ankle) and Simmons (bruised fibula) likely will be held out of most drills this week in the hope they will be sound by Saturday.
Williams, noting the contributions of several reserves and the critical juncture at which USC has arrived, said the Trojans must remain focused.
"We don't want to have a letdown," he said. "We don't want to have a drop-off. We just want to keep pressing on and keep improving week in and week out."