The teams have seven losses between them, and any shot at making the four-team College Football Playoff was off the table by midseason. But the 85th game between USC and UCLA on Saturday at the Coliseum still carries championship implications.
UCLA, coming off a victory at Utah, is 8-3 overall and 5-3 in Pac-12 Conference play. USC, trying to rebound from a thrashing at Oregon, is 7-4 and 5-3.
The Pac-12 South Division title and the chance to face Stanford in the conference title game on Dec. 5 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara is on the line.
UCLA receiver Jordan Payton expected nothing less.
“It’s great for the city,” he said. “It’s cool for us to be in the situation we’re in. This is why you come to these schools, for these moments.”
During the 2000s, the conference or division title hung in the balance for one or both teams several times.
A look at those games:
Seventh-ranked USC began its run of winning or sharing seven consecutive conference titles under coach Pete Carroll with a 52-21 victory over the No. 25-ranked Bruins at the Rose Bowl.
“I’m jealous of our freshmen,” Trojans quarterback Carson Palmer said after the game. “Before they leave here, they are going to play in the BCS championship game. They are going to do a lot of special things under coach Carroll.”
On the same day, Washington State lost to Washington, ensuring the Trojans a share of the conference championship. Washington State had defeated USC in overtime, 30-27. The Cougars earned a Rose Bowl berth by defeating UCLA two weeks after USC’s victory over the Bruins.
USC routed Iowa in the Orange Bowl, the first of seven consecutive appearances in Bowl Championship Series games.
USC receiver Mike Williams dominated with 11 receptions for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the first half of No. 2 USC’s 47-22 win at the Coliseum.
The victory, coupled with Washington’s win over Washington State on the same day, enabled USC to clinch at least a share of the conference title and a berth in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans defeated Oregon State two weeks later to win the conference title outright.
It was Carroll’s third consecutive victory against the Bruins — by a combined score of 126-43. Asked if the difference was that great between the programs, Carroll said, “Draw your own conclusions. What do you think? Looks like there’s a difference to me.”
USC ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press media poll and the coaches’ poll, but computers knocked the Trojans down to third in the final BCS standings. They went on to defeat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and finished first in the AP poll.
USC’s Ryan Killeen kicked a school-record five field goals at the Rose Bowl as the unbeaten, top-ranked Trojans clinched the Pac-10 title with a hard-fought 29-24 victory that earned them the chance to play for the BCS title.
“I’m ready to fly out to the Orange Bowl right now,” USC tailback Reggie Bush said after rushing for 204 yards and two touchdowns in 15 carries.
UCLA quarterback Drew Olson’s short touchdown pass to Marcedes Lewis with 2:20 left pulled the Bruins to within 29-24.
UCLA tried an onside kick, but USC backup quarterback Matt Cassel caught the ball in the air.
“Before they kicked, [safety] Jason Leach said, ‘They’re going to kick it to you,’” said Cassel, who was a fifth-year senior. “It was probably the biggest play of my career.”
Quarterback Matt Leinart overcame a flood of emotions in his final game at the Coliseum and Bush ran for 260 yards in a 66-19 victory that clinched a spot for the unbeaten and top-ranked Trojans in the BCS title game against Texas.
“This game was an exclamation point for this 12-game run,” Carroll said.
Said UCLA’s Olson: “I’m disappointed and embarrassed. We came in to put up a good fight and the opposite happened.”
Second-ranked USC had already clinched the conference title and had its sights set on returning to the BCS title game.
But the Bruins limited USC to a season-low 55 yards rushing, quarterback Patrick Cowan ran through the Trojans defense for a first-half touchdown and linebacker Eric McNeal tipped and intercepted a John David Booty pass in the fourth quarter for a 13-9 UCLA victory that knocked the Trojans from the BCS equation.
“I know how important this win is to the Bruin family,” UCLA coach Karl Dorrell said. “I know that it’s been a long time.”
Dorrell set his sights high after the Bruins ended USC’s seven-game winning streak in the rivalry.
“I’m thinking about getting back on top in Los Angeles,” he said.
The No. 8 Trojans, who had been upset by Stanford and lost at Oregon, took advantage of four Bruins turnovers for a 24-7 victory that clinched a sixth consecutive Pac-10 title, a third straight Rose Bowl berth and, ultimately, ended Dorrell’s tenure with the Bruins.
USC was happy to avenge the previous season’s defeat.
"[UCLA] said last year we played without heart,” defensive lineman Lawrence Jackson said. “Theirs was gone after the first series. It didn’t feel like much of a fight.”
USC’s 28-7 victory at the Rose Bowl earned the No. 5 Trojans their seventh consecutive conference title.
“When you look at the records, it’s kind of obvious they’re the big kids on the hill,” UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker said. “That doesn’t mean our kids have to like it.”
USC was on NCAA probation and ineligible for postseason play when the teams met at the Coliseum a few days after UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said the Bruins had “closed the gap more” with the Trojans.
Tenth-ranked USC was coming off a victory at Oregon that ended the Ducks’ 21-game winning streak at Autzen Stadium and Trojans players knew their season would end against the Bruins.
USC and coach Lane Kiffin took out their frustration by routing UCLA, 50-0, behind six Matt Barkley touchdown passes.
Despite finishing two games behind USC, the 6-6 Bruins advanced to the first Pac-12 title game and lost to Oregon, 49-31, in Neuheisel’s final game.
First-year UCLA Coach Jim Mora showed there would be immediate change by leading the No. 17 Bruins to a 38-28 victory that clinched the Pac-12 South title and ended No. 21 USC’s five-game winning streak in the series.
Quarterback Brett Hundley rushed for two touchdowns and passed for another, and the Bruins forced three turnovers and blocked two kicks.
“We wanted to show the nation and world that we deserved to be in the Pac-12 championship game,” UCLA defensive end Datone Jones said.
The Bruins lost to Stanford in the season finale, but advanced to the Pac-12 title game where they lost again to the Cardinal.
With the Pac-12 South title seemingly on the line for both teams, the No. 11 Bruins did not let up, winning, 38-20, for their third straight victory over the Trojans.
It was UCLA’s largest margin of victory against USC since a 45-25 win in 1986.
UCLA players were not surprised.
“Everyone was hyped up before the game and I was wondering what the big deal was,” Bruins receiver Devin Lucien said. “We had beaten these guys before.”
Had it won, No. 24 USC would have needed Arizona State to defeat Arizona for the Trojans to advance to their first title game. The Bruins eliminated USC from the title chase, and were positioned to win the South if they defeated Stanford in the regular-season finale.
UCLA lost to Stanford, 31-10. The defeat, coupled with Arizona’s victory Arizona State, knocked the Bruins out of the Pac-12 title game.
Times staff writer Chris Foster contributed to this report.