Commentary: College football review: Surprise! UCLA and USC are College Football Playoff contenders

UCLA's Zach Charbonnet carries the ball under pressure from USC players during the 2021 season.
Undefeated UCLA and USC could be playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff semifinals when they face off later this season.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Lincoln Riley against Chip Kelly. Two offensive wizards, one expected to eventually become an NFL head coach, the other been-there-done-that and settling into his collegiate second act.

Caleb Williams against Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Two dual-threat quarterback supermen, one so confident he actually accepted the nickname “Superman,” the other happy to internalize all doubters and silence them in a single bound.

Travis Dye against Zach Charbonnet. Two bruising and cunning transfer tailbacks raised in greater Los Angeles, one an easy conversationalist back from a formational stint at Oregon, the other a strong and silent type who talks with the thuds of his pads and wasn’t enamored with his experience at Michigan.

As great as Caleb Williams is playing for USC, Dorian Thompson-Robinson proved during UCLA’s big win over Utah that he’s L.A.’s top college quarterback.

Oct. 8, 2022

USC against UCLA on Nov. 19 in a game that actually matters nationally because both programs are running legitimate operations — no spoilers allowed, only contenders. That’s what we’re staring at after Saturday, a day in which no top-10 teams lost across the country, but L.A.’s relevance skyrocketed.


In the afternoon, Kelly’s 18th-ranked Bruins puffed out their chests for four quarters against No. 11 Utah, winning their second-straight top-15 game at the Rose Bowl 42-32.

In the East Coast prime-time slot, Riley’s sixth-ranked Trojans were challenged once again, this time by a capable Washington State team, but ran off 20 unanswered points to win comfortably 30-14. People who nitpick USC are showing their true colors at this point — they’re either self-loathing Trojans or folks whose faces turn cardinal at the thought of USC winning.

This Sunday morning in L.A., sports fans wake to the brink of a Dodgers playoff run and the upcoming NBA nonsensical melodramas, but the most surprising and highest impact development lies here: USC and UCLA are both 6-0 for the first time since 2005, with an all-too-real chance of playing their first top-10 rivalry matchup since 1988 — a few weeks after the Dodgers won the World Series over the A’s. (All theoretical, of course.)

If you just did a double-take, welcome to the club. Has it really been 34 years since USC and UCLA played not just for the Victory Bell bragging rights, but also for a shot at the national championship?

For whatever reason, the Trojans and Bruins just can’t seem to play well at the same time. It’s kind of embarrassing, honestly. This isn’t Oregon-Oregon State, which is regionally defined in a part of the country that produces few blue-chip recruits. This is USC-UCLA, set in a city that exports enough future NFL talent to college programs each year to fill more than a few teams’ recruiting classes.

No. 6 USC beat Washington State 30-14 on Saturday to improve to 6-0 as coach Lincoln Riley and the Trojans continue to build a winning pedigree.

Oct. 8, 2022

If you’re an L.A. sports fan, even if your interest trends toward the professional ranks, the prospect of USC-UCLA stepping into a new era in which it becomes an annual display of our city’s excellence on the football field should be a reason to care.


Saturday night, Fox college football analyst Joel Klatt tweeted his new rankings, which featured No. 6 USC and No. 10 UCLA. Sunday’s Associated Press poll will look something like that. (I expect the Bruins to come in at No. 12 because I doubt they jump idle No. 10 Penn State and No. 11 Oregon, which crushed Arizona 49-22 on the road Saturday.)

The specific rankings don’t matter this early, with so much carnage still to come. But projecting ahead, I see 14 teams left that could reasonably make the College Football Playoff semifinals, and two of them reside in L.A., where, coincidentally, the CFP national championship game will be played at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Jan. 9.

Identifying those 14 teams shouldn’t take much detective work, but here goes: Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, USC, Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Mississippi, Penn State, Oregon, UCLA, Texas Christian and Texas (the Longhorns have two losses, sure, but if they somehow got to 11-2 they would have a compelling argument they’d be undefeated if starting quarterback Quinn Ewers did not get hurt in the first quarter against Alabama — yes, a long shot, but the CFP committee can’t resist a TV ratings winner with a case).

Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw for four touchdowns to become UCLA’s all-time leader, and the No. 18 Bruins beat No. 11 Utah 42-32 to improve to 6-0.

Oct. 8, 2022

Those 14 teams are likely to play each other (factoring in potential conference championship matchups) 14 times.

Of course, we should want USC and UCLA to both be 10-0 when they play the weekend before Thanksgiving at the Rose Bowl. Sadly, that may be the only way to guarantee an authentic sellout of the hallowed venue.

Each team would have to win an extremely tough road game — USC at Utah next Saturday and UCLA at Oregon Oct. 22. After that, they’re all trap games, and the Trojans and Bruins have shown enough so far to build trust they won’t choke and ruin the fun.


Because even if one or both of the teams were 9-1, this would be a can’t-miss civic event.

Obviously, if both are 10-0, the winner would vault into playoff pole position. In that case, the loser would also remain alive and hope to avenge the loss in the Pac-12 championship game (which now features the teams with the two best conference records, not the division champions).

If one is 10-0 and the other is 9-1, it’s an elimination game for the 9-1 team.

If both are 9-1, the winner stays very much alive for the Pac-12 championship and a playoff spot.

The USC defense, which has struggled to keep opponents in check this season, proved its worth in the No. 6 Trojans’ 30-14 win over Washington State.

Oct. 8, 2022

As it stands, USC will be ranked higher, but UCLA has proven more on the field thanks to Saturday’s convincing win over Utah, last year’s Pac-12 champ. The Bruins showed they can play physical with a tough team like the Utes but also flash their speed when the window opens to do so. USC will have the same opportunity next weekend with Utah, but it will be much harder since the game is at night in Salt Lake City.

From here, UCLA has the easier path. That’s mostly due to the Trojans having to host resurgent Notre Dame, which has won three straight games after starting 0-2, in the season finale at the Coliseum.

These dreamy scenarios have to be making the Big Ten (and Fox) giddy. On the other side, the rest of the Pac-12 schools must be rolling their eyes — oh, so now you two are going to flex that muscle we always heard about?


Looking ahead, USC and UCLA rising up the polls together (for once!) is pristinely timed. When they leave for the Big Ten in 2024, as it currently stands without further expansion, each will be the other’s only conference rival.

To maintain fan interest amid games against Rutgers, Illinois, Purdue and the like, USC and UCLA will need each other’s best more than they ever have.

How nice of the Trojans and Bruins to get a head start in 2022. Now they just have to maintain it.