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UCLA versus Oregon still means a great deal as Pac-12 balances out

UCLA versus Oregon still means a great deal as Pac-12 balances out
Quarterback Brett Hundley, left, and running back Paul Perkins will try to help the Bruins beat the high-flying Ducks in a key Pac-12 Conference game on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

UCLA and Oregon were on track toward an epic day at the Rose Bowl.

Oregon was picked to win the Pac-12 Conference by the media in July. UCLA was tabbed to win the South Division.

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Oregon started the season ranked third in the Associated Press media poll. UCLA was ranked seventh.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was considered a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley was right behind among the candidates.

What happened a week ago shook up college football and took the spotlight off this game. Oregon and UCLA were among five top-10 teams that lost. Both were beaten at home, Oregon by Arizona and UCLA by Utah.

Yet, in reality, very little has changed about the importance of Saturday's UCLA-Oregon game. It might even be bigger now because there is no margin for error.

Oregon, ranked No. 12, is 4-1 overall, 1-1 in Pac-12 play, same as No. 18 UCLA. If either team wins out, it probably will be included in the four-team college football playoff.

"People talk about the SEC and how getting through that conference unscathed would be a real accomplishment," UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. "I think it is the same in this conference. There are some pretty good teams. There is a real balance. You can absorb a loss and still have a chance."

How about two losses? "I don't know," Mora said.

That alone ramps up the significance of this game.

"We know it's in our control," UCLA receiver Jordan Payton said.

UCLA's defense has been inconsistent. Utah gained 242 yards rushing against the Bruins last week. Oregon, with Mariota and a passel of productive running backs, averages 209 yards rushing.

Both teams have trouble protecting their quarterbacks. Hundley was sacked 10 times by Utah. Oregon has lost three tackles to injuries since August, and Mariota has been sacked 12 times in the last two games.

UCLA has home-field advantage, if it can be called that. Visiting teams have won 11 of 14 games in Pac-12 play.

"It is absolutely an understatement to say this conference is tightening up," Mora said. "Look at the scores every week and who's beating who. I don't consider any win an upset."

Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich saw the balance on video this week. "You flip on that Utah film and it makes you think, 'Boy UCLA is really good," he said, "and, by the way, Utah is really good as well.' "

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The Bruins have lost six consecutive games to the Ducks. After a 42-14 loss last season, Mora said, "It's time for UCLA to turn the page and do something different and win these games."

His team this season has no choice if it holds out hope of winning a conference championship and making the four-team national playoff.

"It would be an extreme accomplishment to win this week, as well as bounce back from last week," senior linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "Let's do it."

The Bruins haven't just lost to the Ducks; they have lost by an average margin of 31 points the last three seasons.

So a UCLA victory would be a big move forward and give the Bruins reason to celebrate. For a week.

"It's a tough league," linebacker Myles Jack said. "Every game is the Super Bowl to us. That's how it works, that's how it is."

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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