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Roundtable: Will UCLA win the Pac-12? Is USC better? Can either reach the playoffs?

UCLA starting left guard Paul Grattan is cheered by fans after the Bruins beat LSU
UCLA starting left guard Paul Grattan is cheered by fans after the Bruins beat LSU 38-27 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
( Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times )

UCLA earned a statement win over Louisiana State, while USC eventually pulled away from San Jose State in its season opener.

The No. 16 Bruins (2-0) vaulted into the top 25 rankings for the first time since 2017, two spots behind No. 14 USC (1-0).

Times college football writers J. Brady McCollough, Ben Bolch and Ryan Kartje shared their thoughts on just how good UCLA and USC might be this season.

Is UCLA the favorite in the Pac-12 South now or is that an overreaction?

McCollough: It depends on how good one thinks LSU is, because that is the data point that matters and the one that vaulted UCLA into the top 20. Sure, the Tigers won the national championship in 2019, but that came out of some voodoo that paired up Joe Burrow with pass game coordinator Joe Brady and three NFL wide receivers for one magical fall. LSU went 5-5 in 2020, and if Saturday was any indication, it is going to need way more execution on both sides of the ball to get to eight wins in 2021. That said, even beating an average SEC team is an accomplishment in today’s Pac-12. UCLA has looked totally cohesive and inspired for two weeks now — when’s the last time USC left that impression for any stretch? Utah will be a factor, too, and the Bruins have to go to Salt Lake City. Still, I’d give UCLA a slight edge over the Trojans and Utes right now.

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The man who drew Ed Orgeron’s UCLA ‘sissy blue shirt’ ire before Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl talks about what led to the exchange with the LSU coach.

Bolch: An overreaction? You saw that Chip Kelly has brought back The Visor, right? In all seriousness, UCLA is going to be tough to beat if the Bruins combine their smash-mouth running game with an attacking defense and nearly flawless special teams the way they have in season-opening victories over Hawaii and Louisiana State. That should give them the edge over challengers USC (questionable coaching, spotty offense), Arizona State (questionable ethics, 0-2 against the Bruins with Dorian Thompson-Robinson as the starter) and Utah (questionable for fun things to do on a Friday night, solid but unspectacular all around).

Kartje: I wouldn’t be so quick to crown the Bruins after one “quality” win (which in a few months might not actually look that impressive). Chip Kelly has earned his one-week victory lap, and I understand the reasons for optimism. But I’m not going to overreact here: UCLA still must face both Oregon and Arizona State at the Rose Bowl, as well as Washington, Utah and USC on the road, where Kelly only has four wins away from L.A. in three seasons. The path to a Pac-12 South title is still much smoother for USC, which doesn’t have to face Oregon or Washington and, among divisional contenders, only faces Arizona State on the road. The Trojans didn’t look nearly as polished as their crosstown rival in their season opener Saturday, but USC has a month to tune up its offense before the meat of its schedule in October. The defense already looks like it could be one of the best in the Pac-12. I’d love to know what Clay Helton — a huge fan favorite, as we all know — is really thinking when he sees people patting Chip Kelly on the back for returning to the AP poll for the first time in his four-year tenure.

UCLA earned a huge win over LSU and vaulted into the College Football Playoff conversation, but the Bruins can’t expect the Pac-12 to boost its résumé.

Are USC and UCLA actually good enough to pack the Coliseum on Nov. 20 or come close to it?

Bolch: Yes. UCLA’s resurgence will help fill the pockets of the stadium left empty by Trojans fans — and there could be some big holes to fill if USC wobbles this season. It could be one of the biggest crowds in the crosstown rivalry in recent memory. Just remember to bring — and wear — your mask.

McCollough: This is the first time USC and UCLA have been in the top 25 together since Week 3 of 2017, and the Bruins had a very short stay that week and have not made it back. I moved to L.A. in the spring of 2018 and was surprised by how little buzz there was about the football rivalry, and the fervor has only decreased since then. The rivalry needed to become nationally relevant again to boost its hold over the imagination locally, too, and even with the Delta variant or whatever’s next with COVID, I’d expect we see an amazing atmosphere Nov. 20 that shows the country L.A. cares plenty about college football.

Kartje: Ben is right. If USC starts to slip down the stretch, don’t be surprised if the Coliseum winds up a sea of blue and gold. The combination of Helton’s status on the hot seat, coupled with mask mandates and other COVID-related changes, left the Coliseum particularly barren in Week 1. But considering the path both crosstown rivals appear to be on, I anticipate the stakes in this year’s rivalry matchup will be especially high. If USC is in place to contend for the Pac-12 again, fans will find a way to fill the stands against UCLA, no matter how they feel about the coach.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) throws a pass against San Jose State
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass against San Jose State on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

If they had to set a line for USC-UCLA right now, what would it be?

Bolch: I would put it at UCLA minus-2 1/2. As noted above, the Bruins are dominant in all three phases of the game and are far more motivated than the Trojans, as evidenced by Thompson-Robinson’s saying he wanted to “beat the ever-living s—” out of USC after UCLA collapsed in the final minute of the rivalry game a year ago. UCLA hasn’t beaten USC at the Coliseum since 2013, making it a true road game for the Bruins, but that should only heighten the fun of a taut fourth quarter.

McCollough: Vegas doesn’t set lines with emotions in mind. As of now, with both teams rated in the same range, the Trojans would likely be favored by about a field goal by virtue of the game being at the Coliseum.

Kartje: Have to agree with Brady here. As an amateur oddsmaker, I’d put the line at USC minus-2 1/2. The home-field advantage is enough to tilt the line slightly toward the Trojans right now, but the fact that it’s that small is a credit to UCLA and how they’ve changed perceptions over just two weeks. USC has won the last three matchups at the Coliseum by an average of nearly two touchdowns. And while DTR might be especially motivated this time around, let’s not forget that Kedon Slovis has thrown for a meager 859 yards and nine touchdowns in his two wins over UCLA.

UCLA is 2-0 and for-real real after defeating mighty LSU 38-27 on Saturday night at a rocking Rose Bowl, and the season’s promise is limitless.

Does the rest of the Pac-12’s performance during Week 1 leave both UCLA and USC no room for error the rest of this season as they chase a College Football Playoff semifinal bid?

Bolch: The Bruins got the victory they needed to legitimize themselves for CFP purposes, barring LSU going 2-10. Now all they must do is keep winning. They could easily be 6-0 heading into a telling October pocket of the schedule that includes a game at Washington followed by a game against Oregon at the Rose Bowl and a game at Utah.

Kartje: (In an extreme Jim Mora voice) “Playoff? You kidding me? Are you talking playoff?” Hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but it’s going to take a minor miracle for either of these teams to find themselves in the playoff race down the stretch. To realistically work their way into that conversation, either USC or UCLA would need to go undefeated in the Pac-12 — and perhaps overall. Call me a pessimist, but I just don’t see that happening for either program. USC has been consistently inconsistent under Clay Helton and doesn’t have the offensive firepower necessary to keep it alive down the stretch. UCLA has won three games in a row just once under Chip Kelly. Talk to me at the end of October, after both of these teams have entered the toughest stretches of their season.

McCollough: Classic Kartje. Since I began this week by encouraging Bruins’ fans to dream big, I’ll reemphasize that point even for Trojans fans too: Joy in college sports is fleeting. Please fully imbibe until reality hits.


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