It should be the flagship rivalry of the West. Two schools, 13 miles away from each other, with ample resources, scenic campuses and some of America's most fertile football recruiting grounds surrounding them. For now, they remain the closest thing Los Angeles has to professional football, and yet UCLA-USC can't quite claim the national traction that many other localized rivalries have.
The Bruins and Trojans rarely peak at the same time, and they rarely play close games.
That could change in 2015. For all of the preseason hype that USC is receiving as it returns a senior Heisman candidate quarterback in Cody Kessler and finally boasts a deeper roster post-NCAA sanctions, rival UCLA might be the Trojans' equal as a contender for the Pac-12 championship and a College Football Playoff spot -- and perhaps even a better bet -- which makes the USC-UCLA dynamic one of the most pivotal parts of the upcoming college football season. In fact, quarterback seems to be the only reason USC has surged ahead of UCLA in preseason prognostications. USC very well might return to national prominence in 2015, but circumstances are different than they have often been in the past: UCLA is a legitimate obstacle, a team that has playoff aspirations of its own and has won three games in a row against the Trojans.
The Bruins are no slam dunk. Like Baylor, they lost an acclaimed multi-year starter at quarterback and return almost everything else, but whereas Baylor's offense is expected to thrive regardless of who is playing quarterback, that confidence does not exist at UCLA, where the Jim Mora era and the Brett Hundley era have been one and the same, a three-year marriage between coach and acclaimed quarterback, the Bruins' best passer since Cade McNown in the late 1990s. Despite the presence of Hundley, UCLA's offense has been inconsistent under the direction of coordinator Noel Mazzone, not cracking the top 30 nationally in yards per play in any of Hundley's three seasons while ranking near the bottom of the Pac-12 in sacks allowed every year.
Still, the pieces are in place for UCLA: 18 returning starters, including Pac-12 leading rusher Paul Perkins, star linebacker Myles Jack, a much-improved offensive line, a deep secondary and a standout defensive tackle duo of Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes. UCLA may be losing Hundley (plus tackling machine Eric Kendricks at linebacker), but the team is poised to get better as the Josh Rosen era presumably begins. The Bruins have signed four straight top-20 recruiting classes, and they have some of the Pac-12's best players at nearly every position. After many jumped the gun in declaring UCLA a playoff frontrunner last preseason, the Bruins likely have a better chance this year, despite the changing of the guard at quarterback.
That's not to dismiss Hundley's talent -- although he did struggle to handle pressure throughout his career -- or put unfair expectations on the shoulders of Rosen, a true freshman who has not yet taken a college snap. Hundley helped elevate UCLA back into the national consciousness, with back-to-back AP top 25 finishes for only the second time since the 1980s. But Rosen can finish the job and take UCLA to a major bowl for the first time since 1998, when the Bruins won the Pac-12 went to the Rose Bowl. While the focus, as always, is heavily on the quarterback position, the rest of the roster has finally gelled. Few true freshman quarterbacks are capable of making a seamless transition to a conference like the Pac-12, but Rosen is the type of prospect who could be an exception. By all accounts, he's mature, poised and confident, an accurate and smart passer capable of smoothly transitioning into a pro-style system, especially in a situation that is much better than the one Hundley stepped into in 2012.
UCLA is by no means as talented as Florida State was in 2013, but it's possible Rosen replacing Hundley could turn out to have shades of the switch from first-round pick EJ Manuel to Jameis Winston in Tallahassee (although Winston was a redshirt freshman at the time, while Rosen has been with the Bruins since January after enrolling early). A five-star recruit, Rosen has been subjected to incessant attention as the future of the UCLA program, and he has the luxury of both enrolling early to participate in spring practice and also easing into an offense filled with veterans who have shown substantial growth. It's on Rosen to actually win over teammates and secure the job over Jerry Neuheisel in the preseason, and there are no guarantees for any freshman quarterback, but this may be as close as it gets.
Which also means that as expectations skyrocket again at USC, this year's UCLA-USC matchup may prove to be the best in years. USC faces steep hurdles with road games at Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon, but the season finale at home against UCLA has a chance to be every bit as big of an obstacle. UCLA has tests of its own: BYU, Arizona and Arizona State in consecutive games in the first half of the season, a Thursday trip to Stanford and a trip to Utah. Both teams have proven more than capable of both impressive wins against quality opponents and devastating falls, whether it was USC getting bulldozed at Boston College last September or UCLA losing by three touchdowns to a mediocre Stanford the week after beating USC. Meeting expectations is the strong suit of neither. And while UCLA ended up finishing 10th in the AP poll last year, it did so in a season in which it went 6-1 in games decided by eight points or less, a number that is not typically sustainable.
In fact, based on the histories of these teams, it's possible that neither will deliver on hype, and that Arizona State will surge to the Pac-12 South title, or perhaps even Arizona again or Utah. It's hard not to be enticed by the potential, though: Senior Kessler and freshman Rosen, two-ways stars in Jack and USC's Adoree Jackson, entire offensive lines returning, proven defensive playmakers.
Since the start of the AP poll in 1936, only five times have the Bruins and Trojans finished in the top 10 in the same season. It hasn't happened since 1988, and much of college football history has seen the Bruins chasing the Trojans in a rivalry that seems to move in cycles despite the fact that the recruiting base in the Los Angeles area would seem plentiful enough to support two elite programs at the same time. UCLA won eight in a row in the 1990s. USC then won 12 of the next 13 as the Pete Carroll dynasty took control. Now, UCLA has won the last three. Only three of the last 17 meetings have been decided by single digits.
Finally, though, the premature declaration by Rick Neuheisel in 2008 that the "football monopoly in L.A. is official over" has been proven true, albeit after Neuheisel was replaced by Mora and USC struggled through sanctions under Lane Kiffin.
Maybe USC will fail to meet expectations again, and maybe UCLA will again live down to its reputation as an underachiever. But the USC-UCLA rivalry should be better than it has been. This fall could finally deliver on that promise.