Take 2: Significant Pac-12 showdowns

May, 3, 2013
5/03/13
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Remember how last year's USC-Oregon game was supposed to be the greatest thing since someone somewhere put knife to bread? It was to be a showdown for the ages with enormous national championship implications. Yeah, not so much. It was a good game -- nay, a great game -- from an entertainment perspective. But it just didn't have the same sizzle we were expecting.

This year's premier game in the Pac-12 figures to be Oregon at Stanford on Nov. 7. Both teams are predicted to be top-five, and the fact that they are in the same division makes it even more compelling. So assuming that's the most anticipated game on the 2013 docket, what's No. 2?

Glad you asked.

[+] EnlargeKa'imi Fairbairn
AP Photo/Matt YorkArizona State, after falling to UCLA on the last play in 2012, gets a shot at revenge Nov. 23.
Kevin Gemmell: Back in the Arizona State entry in the Pac-12 blog's most important game series, I made a case for the Arizona matchup being the most important for ASU. If you look at the poll results, you'll see that this was the most controversial of the entire series because, obviously, the matchup with UCLA is also of great significance.

From just an Arizona State point of view, I still think it's the Arizona game for all of the reasons explained in the post. But from a conference-wide perspective and conference-wide interest level, then I'd go with the Sun Devils' Nov. 23 showdown at UCLA.

For starters, there are so many interesting similarities between the two rising programs.

  • Both schools have second-year head coaches who accepted their positions with a healthy heaping of skepticism from their respective fan bases.
  • Both exceeded expectations last year.
  • Both have second-year starters at quarterback who were fantastic in their first years. Even their numbers are pretty similar. Taylor Kelly: 3,039 yards, 67.1 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 516 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown. Brett Hundley: 3,745 yards, 66.6 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 355 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns.
  • Both have much tougher schedules in 2013 than they did in 2012, so with the increased level of expectation comes an increased level of national scrutiny.
  • Both have premier defensive players in Will Sutton and Anthony Barr, who were atop the conference stats leaders last season in sacks and tackles for a loss.

So while this game might not only determine the Pac-12 South champ, the sidebar is it could also determine the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.

I'm guessing since I took this game, Ted is going to go with UCLA-USC -- which would be my second choice (or third, as it were). I'm sure he'll make a very compelling argument.

But when you look at the returning starters -- for both teams on both sides of the ball -- and how last year's game played out at Arizona State, it's likely that the 2013 edition at the Rose Bowl will match the excitement level and the stakes will be equally high. And the fact that the 2012 encounter came down to a game-winning field goal as time expired makes the rematch that much more compelling.

Arizona, still looking for a quarterback and down an A-list wide receiver, has seen its stock drop over the past few weeks. USC is by no means a darkhorse in the division and could very well return to prominence in 2013.

But for now, we know that Arizona State and UCLA have the fewest question marks. Most would agree that the Sun Devils have fewer. But with the Bruins the two-time South champs, the road to the conference title game has to go through Pasadena until proven otherwise. And with a pair of teams loaded with talent, this game might actually end up being the most significant of the season.

Ted Miller: I'm with Kevin in that I think the UCLA-Arizona State game will play out in the South Division like the Stanford-Oregon game in the North.

[+] EnlargeUCLA scores
AP PhotoUCLA goes for two in a row over rival USC on Nov. 30; how warm might Lane Kiffin's seat be then?
Yet if you look for a No. 3 Most Important Game in the Pac-12, UCLA's Nov. 30 visit to the Coliseum to face USC stands out. Further, I think it gets a boost because it's also one of the most interesting games in the Pac-12 this year. It has plenty of soap-opera potential.

Before UCLA impressively triumphed 38-28 in last year's game, USC had won five in a row and 12 of the past 13 in the series. The Trojans had owned the Bruins. And then Jim Mora came to town, and the Bruins started looking like a different team, one with some swagger and one that seems to be on a strong uptick.

Meanwhile, there's USC. A year ago, folks were celebrating the Trojans as national title contenders and heavy Pac-12 favorites. Coming off a strong 10-2 finish in 2011, many were on the cusp of rethinking their reflexive aversion to coach Lane Kiffin. The feeling was that Kiffin not only had grown up but also perhaps we -- college football fans, the national media, etc. -- had been too hard on him.

Then 2012 happened. It was yucky from all angles from a USC perspective. And Kiffin took the brunt of the blame. He doesn't even seem to be getting much credit for being a stand-up guy this offseason and owning up to his own shortcomings. Heck, the guy basically pushed his own father out the door, so you know there's some soul-searching going on.

The stakes in the USC-UCLA game are always going to be high because it's a bitter rivalry. It's also likely it will have some bearing on the Pac-12 South race, the national rankings and the pecking order for bowl selection. While Arizona State and UCLA are the two South Division favorites, USC is right there. In fact, if someone could magically guarantee that the Trojans would fully and consistently play to their capabilities, the reaction would be to make them a solid South favorite.

But many now doubt the Trojans and Kiffin. That's also why this game is interesting.

Kiffin sits on the hottest seat in the conference. This matchup might rate as a must-win for his survival. Many USC fans probably just mocked that "might" qualifier.

For UCLA, Mora going 2-0 versus the hated Trojans would provide further proof that the Bruins are headed back to national relevance. Another celebration around the Victory Bell might be prelude to another shot at the Rose Bowl in the Pac-12 title game.

And with those circumstances in Westwood standing in contrast to a USC team potentially looking for a new coach, one might then wonder if the football monopoly in L.A. is truly over, with the City of Angels now cruising for a Bruin.

Ted Miller | email

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