Division titles could be settled this weekend when UCLA plays USC and Oregon faces Stanford.
Jim Mora tried as best he could to stick with what it says in the coaching manual about never stating that any one game is bigger than another.
“It’s the most important game we will play this week,” said Mora, the former Huskies player and Seahawks coach, in his first year as UCLA’s coach. That was in response to a question during Tuesday’s Pac-12 football coaches conference call about Saturday’s game against USC.
But eventually, Mora relented — just a little.
Mora said he’s attempting not to make more of this game than any others because he says a key to building a good program is “being able to treat all games as important games.” Finally, though, he said, “We all know this one is special and what the stakes are.”
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Indeed, a lot is on the line when the two meet at the Rose Bowl, notably the championship of the Pac-12 South. USC is 5-3 in the Pac-12 and done with conference play after this week. UCLA, one of the surprises in the conference at 8-2, is 5-2 in conference action and must play Stanford next week.
But whoever wins the USC-UCLA game will have the head-to-head tiebreaker and the right to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Nov. 30.
The opponent for the USC-UCLA winner, meanwhile, will likely be decided in Eugene when Oregon and Stanford face off. Oregon is 7-0 in the Pac-12, finishing next week with Oregon State, and can claim the North Division title by beating the Cardinal, which is 6-1 and will play next week at UCLA.
Evidence of Oregon’s dominance of the conference this year, though, is that the Ducks are 21-point favorites against a Stanford team that is 8-2 overall, losing only in overtime at Notre Dame and 17-13 at Washington in September.
Oregon was the only Pac-12 team Stanford was unable to beat the past two seasons, when it went 16-2 in conference play with Andrew Luck.
Asked Tuesday about his team’s “Oregon problem,” Stanford coach David Shaw responded, “I think the entire conference has an Oregon problem.”
Hard to argue as the Ducks moved to the top spot in the AP rankings and 10-0 overall Saturday with a 59-17 win at California despite suffering myriad injuries during the game. Shaw said he wasn’t going to bother keeping track of who might play this week and who won’t.
“Cal made it tough on them, but once again, when they hit their groove in all three phases they are the best team in the nation,” Shaw said. “They are the deepest team in the nation. We don’t worry about who is going to play. We just know everyone who puts on an Oregon Duck jersey has our respect.”
The game is an intriguing matchup statistically as the Cardinal comes in with the top defense in the conference, allowing 17.2 points per game, while Oregon has the top offense, scoring 54.8.
“Probably the best defense we’ve faced,” said Oregon coach Chip Kelly.
Otherwise, it’s just another game.
More than division title on line?
The South Division title figures to be motivation enough for USC and UCLA. But the Bruins also have the memory of last year’s 50-0 loss at USC, a game that hastened the firing of coach Rick Neuheisel.
Mora said he didn’t plan to bring that up much this week since “this is a completely different team than last year, a completely different coaching staff.”
Still, he acknowledged it probably isn’t quite that simple.
“It would be naïve to think that they don’t think about that,” he said of his players.
The Trojans, meanwhile, might also have Lane Kiffin’s job riding on the outcome. USC began the season as a national title contender, but losses to Stanford, Arizona and Oregon have the Trojans hoping for a Pac-12 title to squeeze back into the BCS.
With a game against undefeated Notre Dame next week, though, some have speculated that a 7-5 season could spur a change, with Kiffin also at the center of a few other embarrassing incidents this season, such as the hullabaloo over the deflated balls against Oregon.
Kiffin sidestepped talk about what the remaining two games might mean for his future on Tuesday.
“I don’t think about it that way at all,” he said. “I know we have a great plan to do the best we can in the situation we were put in a couple of years ago.”
• Cal finishes its season this week at Oregon State — at 3-8, the Bears have long since lost hope of a bowl. Many speculate the game could be the last for coach Jeff Tedford, whose program has declined the past five years after he initially proved miracle worker when he took over in 2002.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bcondotta.