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Talk of the town

Times Staff Writer

What if college football’s end game this season didn’t involve Baton Rouge or Tallahassee and had nothing to do with the kids: Norman, Madison, Eugene, Austin or Ann Arbor?

What if the biggest national news was, not loco, but local?

Say you pulled out a map, took a math compass, stuck the needle at downtown and extended the pointer to Westwood, then penciled a giant, sweeping arc, and that was your circumference?

Say the major ramifications came to a head under our face-lifts, in a town with no NFL football, no Kobe Bryant resolution, no Elton Brand with the Clippers, no Dodgers in the playoffs, and possibly no foothold secured by David Beckham?

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What if, come Dec. 1 at the Coliseum, USC was 11-0 and, gulp, so was UCLA?

And maybe this time, a USC defender intercepts a last-second pass to keep UCLA out of the national title game.

You could laugh out loud, or dream out loud.

“I know I want to see it,” UCLA senior cornerback Rodney Van said with a big grin. “I know SC would want to see it. It would be probably the showdown of the century. I don’t know the last time it’s happened. It’s been a while. And L.A. is all about what have you done for me lately. If both teams are performing, and we get to 11-0, Dec. 1, it’s going to be a showdown.”

Last year in Columbus, No. 1 Ohio State hosted No. 2 Michigan in one of the most can’t-get-here-soon-enough games in college football history, and the after-argument was whether the loser deserved a rematch in the championship game.

“It would be exactly like Ohio State-Michigan,” Van said of an undefeated matchup featuring USC and UCLA.

The ramp-up to 2007 began in Pasadena last December, when UCLA scored its upset over USC to deny the Trojans a trip to the Bowl Championship Series title game.

A rivalry got ratcheted that day with a buzz not felt in years. Remember, during a timeout, when players from both benches emptied and bounced up and down like pogo sticks as they swapped frenzied stares?

Van senses a (US)sea change.

“It’s not one side where everyone wants to go to USC or everyone wants to go to UCLA,” he said. “It’s splitting down the middle and allowing us to have two good teams in L.A. Since there’s no pro football, it’s kind of what everyone wants to see; to have two good college teams competing here year in and year out.”

The waiting this year might be the hardest part.

USC was always going to enter 2007 at No. 1, but its toughest games were always going to be “ats” -- at Nebraska, at Notre Dame, at California, at Oregon, at Arizona Sate.

UCLA was going to enter 2007 with eyes on the prize in Karl Dorrell’s fifth season. Not as touted as the cross-town cover boys, the Bruins would be built to win with 20 starters and 25 seniors returning.

USC might have a tougher road to 11-0 if only because of the schedule; UCLA’s path to perfect might be more pliable.

The Bruins’ toughest challenges come at home. They get Brigham Young, without quarterback John Beck, on Sept. 8.

They get a do-over against Notre Dame on Oct. 6 after dominating all but the final minute of last year’s game in South Bend. UCLA gains quarterback Ben Olson, who was injured for the Irish skirmish, while Notre Dame lost its starting quarterback, tailback and two wide receivers.

UCLA also plays Cal at home, and Arizona State, and Oregon.

The anticipation is palpable.

Last week, after practice in Westwood, in front of the Bud Knapp Football Center, Olson towered over a gaggle of kid autograph-cravers, happily obliging by signing the backs, fronts and collars of their shirts.

“This is the reason I chose to come here to UCLA,” Olson said, “to play big-time college football, to be in L.A, to play at an elite level.”

Olson cautioned that before you get to 11 wins you have to get to one, but he was willing to ponder the possibility.

“The idea of it would be amazing,” Olson said. “But you’ve got to take care of business every week, otherwise. . . “

He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Projecting two teams to 11-0 is a lot like drawing to an inside straight -- it has to be in the cards.

And yet, it has been years since these schools both entered a fall campaign with this kind of hype.

USC is No. 1 in the Associated Press’ preseason poll; UCLA is No. 14. That’s an average poll ranking of 7 1/2 , the highest since the schools entered 1989 with an AP average of seven (USC was No. 5; UCLA was No. 9).

WARNING: Lofty preseason rankings do not a season-ending showdown make.

What could possibly go wrong?

In 1989, USC and UCLA careened off course early by both losing their home openers and the “big” showdown game that year was a dud 10-10 tie.

USC finished 9-2-1 after beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl; UCLA limped in at 3-7-1.

OK, but what about 1988?

Entering the year with an AP poll average of 6 1/2 , only UCLA’s loss to Washington State prevented a showdown of undefeated teams.

USC came in 10-0 and No. 2; UCLA was 9-1 and No. 6. The Trojans won, 31-22, in front of 100,741 at the Rose Bowl, but lost a showdown with No. 1 Notre Dame the next week at the Coliseum.

In 1977, the schools had a preseason poll average of 7 1/2 , same as this year, but USC lost three times before the UCLA game while the Bruins didn’t survive their home opener against Houston and finished 7-4.

In 1969, both schools were unbeaten, each with one tie, when they met. But their preseason AP average that year was only 11.

What about 1967, the season everyone remembers in the rivalry?

It matched this year’s preseason index average: USC was No. 7 in the preseason AP poll and UCLA was No. 8. Only USC’s 3-0 loss at Oregon State prevented a matchup of unbeaten rivals.

UCLA was No. 1 and 7-0-1 when it lost to No. 4 USC in the game made famous by O.J. Simpson’s run.

The AP did not begin conducting preseason polls until 1950 and only one time since then, in 1952, have USC and UCLA both been undefeated and untied when they played.

However, in 1952 neither team began the season ranked in the top 15.

In other words, you just never know.

But with summer’s last rays approaching, the idea of USC and UCLA at 11-0 can not be impugned as of this morning -- not even by common sense.

“It’s obviously going to fuel the rivalry that much more,” UCLA’s Olson said of the possibility. “It’s either you’re one way or another in this town. We’re excited to both be highly regarded, whatever you want call it. We want a lot to be expected out of both of us. And come Dec. 1, it’s going to be on.”

Meanwhile, across town on a recent hot August night, the rock stars aligned as USC played a dress-rehearsal scrimmage at the Coliseum in front of a crowd estimated at 18,000.

The Trojans band was in full-brass blast as artificial fan noise was piped in for effect.

Worshipers hugged the railing in the tunnel end, hoping to get a wrist band from defensive end Lawrence Jackson or a nod from quarterback John David Booty.

Senior tight end Fred Davis, an Ohio native who grew up immersed in Michigan vs. Ohio State, stood tall on the Coliseum sod as he considered the question.

“That would be great,” he said of a possible USC-UCLA showdown. “I would love that. Those are games people remember.”

The noise, starting today, will no longer be piped in.

USC hosts Idaho; UCLA hits the happy trail to Stanford.

It’s a long way to 11.

“Lets get to 1-0 every week,” UCLA tailback Chris Markey said.

From now until Dec. 1, the teams head their separate ways with their separate plays, until . . . they meet . . . again.

“I’m not really concerned about them,” USC senior linebacker Thomas Williams said of UCLA. “But I think it makes it a lot more fun at the end of the season when they’re a good team.”

Williams asked to defer comment on a possible undefeated matchup. Maybe it’s like jinxing a no-hitter by talking about it.

“We’ll see when it comes to the end, if it happens like that,” Williams said. “If you want to talk to me again then we can talk. You can refresh my memory.”

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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Roadblocks

On the path to Dec. 1, top-ranked USC has to watch those “ats” -- at Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, California and Arizona State. Upstart UCLA has a more favorable schedule but better watch out at Oregon State and Washington State.

USC SCHEDULE

Home games: Six.

Easiest game: Tonight’s opener against Idaho. The Vandals can only hope to steal a point or two.

Most difficult: At California. L.A.-area guys Nate Longshore and DeSean Jackson provide plenty of firepower.

Dangerous stretch: Begins at Notre Dame and continues at Oregon, at home against Oregon State, and at Cal.

Sleeper: At Nebraska. After Idaho and a bye week, USC could be in for a wake-up call in red-and-riled Lincoln.

SEPT. 1: IDAHO

Closest thing you get in college to an exhibition game. A good way to get all those star Trojans players some playing time.

SEPT. 15: AT NEBRASKA

Nebraska trying to become what USC already is. New Huskers quarterback Sam Keller is a transfer from Arizona State who in ’05 almost led the Sun Devils to an upset over USC.

SEPT. 22: WASH. ST.

Put it down as a win, although Washington State was driving the field in the end with a chance to win last year’s game in Pullman. But this game isn’t in Pullman.

SEPT. 29: AT WASH.

The salmon and the sunset should be beautiful. No way Washington is ready to take USC down yet, although Coach Ty Willingham did beat Pete Carroll in 2001 when Ty was still at Stanford.

OCT. 6: STANFORD

It’s either going to be 44-0 or 66-0 depending on how mad Pete Carroll is at first-year Cardinal Coach Jim Harbaugh for saying publicly that this would be his last year at USC.

OCT. 13: ARIZONA

The Wildcats gave USC fits last year in Tucson before USC slugged out a 20-3 win. Arizona Coach Mike Stoops seems to know how to slow down the Trojans -- just can’t beat them.

OCT: 20: AT NOTRE DAME

The game two years ago in South Bend was a classic. The game last year at the Coliseum was a rout. This game should probably fall somewhere in between.

OCT. 27: AT OREGON

DANGER! USC hammered the Ducks last year in L.A., 35-10, and Autzen Stadium will be at fever pitch.

NOV. 3: OREGON STATE

Wouldn’t want to be the Beavers in this game a year after they shocked USC in Corvallis. USC’s only other loss last year was to UCLA.

NOV. 10: AT CAL

The Bears shared the Pac-10 title last year with USC, the Trojans won the head-to-head and got the Rose Bowl bid. Carroll vs. Tedford is the best coaching matchup in the conference right now. Should be a bowl-like atmosphere.

NOV. 22: AT ARIZONA STATE

Game is on Thanksgiving Thursday. ASU played USC to a seven-point game last year. USC has to be careful of looking past the Sun Devils toward a big showdown with UCLA on Dec. 1.

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UCLA SCHEDULE

Home games: Six.

Easiest game: Today’s opener against Stanford. The Cardinal has a new coach but too many of the same old players.

Most difficult: California. The Golden Bears were two touchdowns better last season.

Dangerous stretch: Begins at Oregon State and continues with Notre Dame and Cal at home, then Washington State and Arizona on the road.

Sleeper: At Washington State. The Bruins have lost five of their last seven on the Cougars’ home turf.

SEPT. 1 : AT STANFORD

Lowly Stanford Trees should be no problem in the Pac-10 opener, but you wouldn’t want to mess up the whole season before Labor Day.

SEPT. 8: BYU

UCLA wouldn’t want any piece of last year’s BYU team, which throttled Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. But the Cougars have to replace their quarterback and career rushing leader.

SEPT. 15: AT UTAH

Warning! A tough game if the Bruins walk into Salt Lake City the way they did into Seattle last year. Urban Meyer isn’t the Utah coach anymore, but the program is still formidable.

SEPT: 22: WASH.

This one’s easy, right? A payback for last year’s embarrassing loss in Seattle in which Ben Olson threw two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.

SEPT. 29: AT OREGON STATE

A potential trap game. Bruins beat Beavers last year, 25-7, and now OSU is breaking in a quarterback. But ask USC what can happen when you’re not ready to play in Corvallis.

OCT 6: NOTRE DAME

UCLA dominated last year’s game but lost in the last minute when the coordinator went into a prevent defense. UCLA is better this year and Notre Dame won’t be as good.

OCT. 20: CAL

OK, this one’s a biggie, but at least it’s at home, right? UCLA lost at Cal last year, 38-24. Memo to Bruins: Make sure you cover Cal receiver DeSean Jackson. He’s um, real good.

OCT. 27: AT WASH. ST.

Well, at least they’re getting to Pullman before the ground turns to ice. . . We think. Pullman is so tough that no SEC team would ever be found playing there.

NOV. 3: AT ARIZONA

Another No Need To Remind Us game. Two years ago, UCLA waltzed into Tucson undefeated and got whacked, 52-14.

NOV. 10: ARIZONA STATE

This is another tricky one. New ASU Coach Dennis Erickson might have the Sun Devils up to speed by game time. UCLA won last year in Tempe, 24-12.

NOV. 24: OREGON

UCLA lost last year in Eugene, 30-20. In 1998, UCLA beat Oregon in a crazy, insane, kitchen-sink game at the Rose Bowl to stay unbeaten and alive in the national title race. This one could be similar.

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USC vs. UCLA

Three digits and a hyphen: 13-9. A fluke? Trojans think so. A turning point in the rivalry? The Bruins hope so.

-- Chris Dufresne


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