Column: If UCLA, USC football are both strong, good times come flooding back

Will USC's Cody Kessler, top left, Coach Steve Sarkisian, bottom center, and Hayes Pullard, top right, play spoiler to the Bruins' Pac-12 aspirations? UCLA's Jordon James, bottom left, Brett Hundley, top center, and Myles Jack won't make it easy.
(Luis Sinco, Rick Loomis, Jabin Botsford / Los Angeles Times; Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

Those of us thinking it would take something Biblical to reboot L.A.'s crosstown football rivalry got to check “flood” off the list after UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion was turned into an aquarium by a busted pipe on Sunset Boulevard.

There hasn’t been so much interest in standing water on that street since a certain 1950 movie classic opened with William Holden floating face down in a swimming pool.

Drought . . . Fire . . . Flood. The only thing missing is a plague of locusts.

There is temptation now to suggest many signs point toward a football renewal involving USC and UCLA , if only because Steve Sarkisian became the new Trojans coach and Brett Hundley remained the old Bruins quarterback.


USC and UCLA open training camps this week with about as much confidence as Rory McIlroy with a driver in his hand.

USC is finished with NCAA penalties after four years of breaking rocks in the hot sun. The Trojans are still below the 85-man football scholarship cap but are brimming with hope after winning 10 games last year despite a near insurrection.

Cobbling double-digit wins took a 14-game schedule and involved four head coaches, but the year ended happily with a beat-down of Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

UCLA finished 10-3 in Year 2 of Jim Mora and might have been content with a retooling year until Hundley announced he was bypassing the NFL draft.

Hundley’s somewhat surprising return made UCLA a preseason top-10 pick and legitimate national contender in the first year of the new four-team College Football Playoff.

UCLA opened at No. 7 last week in the preseason USA Today coaches’ poll; USC checked in at No. 15.

Let’s cross (town) our fingers and hope the Nov. 22 meeting between the local teams at the Rose Bowl turns out as special as it looks now.

The problem with one of college football’s best rivalries, for a quarter century now, is the programs have rarely been in championship sync.

There was no forewarning to the lopsidedness in 1990 when USC inched out a 45-42 thriller on Todd Marinovich’s game-winning touchdown pass to Johnnie Morton. Then a silly pattern developed. UCLA won the next eight in the series, followed by a rivalry pirouette and seven consecutive wins by USC.

The Trojans’ dominance under former coach Pete Carroll was interrupted in 2006 when UCLA’s stunning 13-9 upset knocked the Trojans out of the Bowl Championship Series title game.

It was only a blip, as it turned out, with USC bouncing back with five straight wins. But that has been followed by two straight wins by UCLA under Mora.

A few years ago, ESPN rated the top 10 games in the UCLA-USC rivalry since 1960. Only two games after 1990 made the list: 1996 and 2006.

In 1988, UCLA opened at No. 5 in the Associated Press media poll with USC at No. 6. The teams were still top-10 when the second-ranked Trojans defeated the sixth-ranked Bruins on Nov. 19.

Since then, the series has been more uneven than interesting.

It looked like 2007 might be a breakthrough year when USC started out ranked No. 1 and No. 14 UCLA was still drenched in the afterglow of 13-9. The Times’ college football sage — that’s me — wrote before the season: “Both could be 11-0 when they meet Dec. 1 with a national-title-game berth on the line.”

Ever wish you could go back and, like the old Soviet Republic, simply expunge records from the annals?

The year before, Ohio State and Michigan met in Columbus when they were ranked 1-2. UCLA cornerback Rodney Van thought a repeat was possible in Los Angeles. “It would be exactly like Ohio State-Michigan,” he said.

Well, not exactly. USC suffered an embarrassing home defeat against Stanford and was also defeated at Oregon. UCLA got derailed, 44-6, at Utah and lost four more times before its “showdown” with USC.

UCLA had another window-crack opening after USC was hammered by NCAA sanctions in June 2010. Rick Neuheisel had arrived in Westwood in 2008 but could not close the rivalry gap. He lost, 50-0, to USC in 2011 and was fired.

Neuheisel left an important recruiting gift behind, though: Hundley. And Neuheisel deserves credit for redshirting Hundley as a freshman — probably to the coach’s own employment detriment.

Hundley’s emergence in 2012 coincided amicably with the arrival of Mora, an NFL underachiever who had been met locally with the same eye rolls that ushered Carroll into Heritage Hall.

“Let’s not kid anybody,” Mora said last week at the Pac-12 Conference’s annual media days. “I wasn’t the most popular hire in the history of college football.”

Turns out he was the right hire, imbuing UCLA with the kind of competitive spirit that Carroll breathed into USC.

Mora replaced Neuheisel and did take advantage of NCAA-wounded USC. He is 2-0 against the Trojans but knows the college construct is precarious. “Our success right now, in my opinion, is still very limited,” Mora cautioned. “We haven’t won the Pac-I2 championship. We’re 0-3 against Stanford.”

Mora also knows Sarkisian inherited a team that is thin in depth but loaded in talent, especially on defense. Sarkisian is going hybrid with the interesting idea of implementing an up-tempo scheme out of conventional offensive sets.

Sarkisian’s hypothesis: What kind of disruptions could a roster of pro-style players cause if you cranked up the heat? “We are going to go fast,” he said. “And that is something very different than has ever been seen at the Coliseum.”

UCLA and USC, like pro wrestlers at the old Olympic Auditorium, are circling each other again. The prospect of a legitimate cage-match revival feels real.

Sarkisian, a Carroll disciple, is locked in to his dream job while Mora swears he feels no pressure to prove himself in the NFL.

“I don’t want to go anywhere,” he said. “I want to see us build something special. I’m staying until they kick me out.”

Honk if you’ve heard that before.

Hopes of renewal are couched with the standard potholes and caveats. UCLA, before it even considers USC, must contend with Texas in Arlington on Sept. 13, Arizona State at Tempe 12 days later, and Oregon at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 11. USC opens at home Aug. 30 against Fresno State, which will be looking for Las Vegas Bowl payback, and travels to Stanford the next week.

Los Angeles is a better train stop when UCLA and USC are simultaneously viable. We need a reason, other than the brilliant uniform colors and contrasts, for the Southeastern Conference to care about the game.

We’re definitely playing catch-up. Last year’s Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama made USC versus UCLA seem like a chamber of commerce mixer.

It’s time to stop playing Tinseltown teeter totter and put the Beban back in the Bruins and the Tommy back in the Trojans — at the same time.

Let’s part the “Cs” in USC and UCLA and make this rivalry Biblical again.