USC-UCLA rivalry no longer channels the same electricity


The UCLA-USC football rivalry has really changed . . . channels.

You used to be able to find it during the day, with a simple antenna tweak on a single-digit station that ended programming with the national anthem and a picture of an American Indian.

Once, you could mow the lawn after USC-UCLA was over.

This year’s drive-in movie kicks off at 10 p.m. for viewers in Martha’s Vineyard and is accessible with a remote-control click to an area code -- 694, 654, 636, 666 -- or some corresponding and/or demonic satellite transponder.

Try mowing the lawn after Saturday’s game and it might cost you a toe and $500 for violating noise ordinances.

You can stop USC-UCLA now any time you want with TiVo, make popcorn, do a Sudoku puzzle and then review an “irrefutable” call on the field that gets overturned anyway by the replay booth.

At least UCLA-USC -- we’re alternating school references here by order pursuant to the Football Fairness Doctrine -- is not being carried by Versus, in which case you would’ve had no shot if your satellite provider is at war with the company, which cost me last week’s exciting (from what I hear) game between Stanford and California.

They call that rivalry “the Big Game,” but it’s not as big in my immediate rivalry world as Versus vs. DirectTV, which lacks in veracity only two seething coaches, an old oaken bucket to play for, and a marching band that specializes in inappropriate halftime tributes to “Girls Gone Wild” or, for Notre Dame games, the potato famine.

If you have pad and pen handy for the commercials, and order before midnight, you can get USC-UCLA and a set of Ginsu knives.

UCLA and USC didn’t cave for the money, thank goodness, and take a Thursday night ESPN slot, as Oregon State and Oregon have done for this year’s Civil War on Dec. 3 . . . but maybe next year?

USC vs. UCLA: Watch it live next to a Monster drink or a pot of coffee or, if you’re Ben Franklin -- early to bed, early to rise -- tape it and enjoy it Sunday with a croissant.

Maybe this is what happens when a rivalry, like an aging pitcher, loses speed on the fastball.

Because there is too much history to ignore, and too many strained relationships, UCLA vs. USC remains among the top rivalries in college football, even if people are starting to ask questions.

The day Michigan-Ohio State airs on the Big Ten Network, at 7 p.m. Ann Arbor time, is the day Woody Hayes rolls over in his grave and punches Bo Schembechler.

The good news: USC and UCLA have gone back to wearing their home uniforms, which hearkens to the early days of color TV. Flipping the switch back then for UCLA-USC was magical, like the moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy opens the farmhouse door to a cacophony of colors.

The game, though, is just not the same without a sunset.

Alabama at Auburn, the “Iron Bowl,” is a 2:30 p.m. kickoff Friday on the network where Walter Cronkite worked. Florida State at Florida, on Saturday, has a 3:30 (Eastern) time slot on CBS.

Last week, Ohio State at Michigan, with no major national implications, was a noon (Eastern) kickoff on ABC.

Is USC and UCLA still an event? You bet your Victory Bell, but it’s more like an asteroid that has broken away from Ohio State-Michigan and is on a collision course toward West Virginia-Pitt.

It doesn’t help that the state due north is reenacting a Civil War next week that will be this year’s Rose Bowl decider, or that USC versus UCLA hasn’t been anything close to “we’ll get you suckers next year!” for years.

UCLA won eight straight in the series from 1991 through 1998 and, since, USC has captured nine of the last 10. One of those final scores was 66-19 only because, as Jim Harbaugh might suggest, there wasn’t a four-point play for USC to get to 70.

The fly sweep in the ointment streak was 2006, when UCLA’s miraculous 13-9 victory at the Rose Bowl cost USC a berth in the national title game.

It doesn’t, rivalry lovers, get any more gut-punch than that.

This year, though, a UCLA victory only moves the Bruins one step closer to a free-agent contract to, what, the Humanitarian Bowl, while maybe knocking USC into, what, the Emerald?

There is not, as far as we know, a flower or parade associated with either of those games, although the Pacific 10 Conference’s last bowl tie-in is in San Diego, and it’s as pretty as a Poinsettia.