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UCLA and USC Settle Class War Through Football

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One of the most intense and vicious rivalries in college sport kicks off Saturday in Pasadena. ESPN's College Gameday will be in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Which makes sense.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It is class war—public versus private school. It is hatred—for every good reason in the world.

It’s also football, and Saturday in ABC’s primetime slot UCLA and USC are going lock-up for the 84th time to determine which neighborhood the toughest hombre in Los Angeles cracks open his beers.

The television-men have pulled a magician’s trick naming the night-slot "primetime." Gives it the unmistakable suggestion of being best, the choicest cut. But, except for a few places, an afternoon is the superior window for a football game.

That is definitely true during winter in Southern California where the daytime sun is bright, warm and friendly, and the nighttime air fills with cold mist and loses its heat quickly like the desert.

College Gameday passing on Pasadena and the Rose Bowl for Cambridge, Massachusetts in late November has a peculiar reek, too. The Skull and Bones choir singing the siren song of the Whiffenpoofs enticed the show to the power corridors of the East.

Does anyone doubt the Illuminati had a hand in this? It’s so obvious. We’ll never be made privy to the negotiations that tipped the scales in favor of Harvard and Yale though—those are going to the grave.

But "Bonesmen: Present!" for sure.

Back to reality, though. Why is ESPN’s flagship pre-game show going to a game nobody outside the Supreme Court cares about?

Gameday has spent one weekend in thirteen on the West Coast despite the Pac-12 conference having fully half its league ranked headed into this week. That one Saturday out west was an intersectional game between Michigan State and Oregon all the way back on September 6.

Between then and now the show went seven weeks to the South-East for either the SEC or Florida State, and once each to Morgantown, West Virginia and East Lansing, Michigan. It is no wonder most of the country is confused about football in the Western United States—it’s criminally under-served.

With definite offense intended to both Harvard and Yale, the West Coast’s premier football rivalry and one of the 10 greatest in the sport is answering the bell to determine the South division in a power conference. ESPN is staying home in Connecticut for an Ivy League game?

I’m not a conspiracy theorist in the least—but is this a conspiracy to keep east of the Rocky Mountains?

In the end it doesn’t matter, all of that’s a sideshow. The game will go on.

In this rivalry the Trojans have played the part of "Spoiled Child Of A Railroad Tycoon" toward "New Money UCLA" ever since the Bruins moved to town in 1919. UCLA just wasn’t their kind of people, it appears, and still aren’t. The implacable hatred became eternal for both sides a long time ago. It makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like Ronald McDonald and the Hamburgler.

The antagonism reached its current stasis level of revulsion back in 1928 when UCLA signed a contract to share the Coliseum with USC—which is when the home-jerseys-for-both tradition came to life. The Bruins shared the home-sod with the Trojans until 1982, when they moved to the Arroyo Seco canyon and the Rose Bowl—which USC considers its winter vacation spot.

USC leads the series 46-30-7, but the record is misleading. The Trojans started much earlier at football than UCLA, playing 32-seasons before the Bruins’ fielded their first team. As a result, USC took a big early lead in the series, surging ahead 12-2-2 from 1929 through 1940.

But since 1950, when Red Sanders went to Westwood and threw down the gauntlet, the decades have split 3-3.

"Beating SC is not a matter of life or death," declared Sanders. "It’s more important than that."

The Bruins won the ‘50s, ‘80s and ‘90s with a record of 20-8-2, which included the series’ longest winning streak at eight-in-a-row from ’91 to ’98.

USC won the ‘60s and ‘70s at 14-5-1, and the double-oughts 9-to-1. UCLA’s lone win in 2006 knocked USC out of the national championship game.

Both teams have spoiled more than one Rose Bowl and more than one national championship for the other. Seasons that earned a righteous stack of laurel wreaths have been turned to burning ash heaps in a single afternoon. Both universities are hyper-competitive with the other in every imaginable pursuit. They are dug-in just 12 miles apart—suffocating proximity—and backed by 10-million people split in their loyalty.

It is Total War across all of Los Angeles County and no front stays quiet long. It is an ugly rivalry. No quarter is given, no Geneva Convention is recognized.

This year it’s taken a comical Bad Girls Club turn for the melodrama with the "We Run LA" message dispatched back and forth across town.

Jim Mora and Brett Hundley got into it the last few seasons, both dominant UCLA victories. Mora shouted it last year in front of the old locker rooms at the Coliseum after the Bruins’ 35-14 win.

"UCLA runs LA now now," said Hundley.

The Trojans see it differently.

"We still own LA," USC’s man-mountain tackle Zach Banner told the Los Angeles Times. "They got us the last two years, but they don’t own it. They’ve just been renting it for a couple weeks."

The comic relief came from Justin Davis, the Trojan’s sophomore running back.

"We are USC and we’re humble," said Davis, making up his own universe. "We’re going to speak with our pads."

Then some gentlemen from USC vandalized the Bruin statue on UCLA’s campus.

But the joke is on both teams. The person who really runs LA  is a lantern-jawed delinquent of Bad Girl's infamy best known as Natalie "The Chin" Nunn. Think she can't take a few on the button and keep swinging?

All that is just clowning around, the game Saturday won't be.

It looks like it is going to be tight, almost without a doubt. Both teams have been inconsistent and hard to figure out, even more difficult to predict. Both have seemed to find continuity lately.

USC has lost three games by a total of 13 points. There was the stunner to Boston College in Chestnut Hill, the embarrassing "Jael Mary" to Arizona State, and the devastating last second touchdown to Utah up in the mountains.

"That’s our season right now," USC coach Steve Sarkisian told ESPN. "We’re living and dying by these moments. It obviously hurts a lot to lose [this way]."

The Trojans are ranked 24th in the latest AP poll and are in contention in the South. They rarely turn over the football and have in Nelson Agholor an elite playmaker and in Buck Allen a reliable horse. Cody Kessler—who looks like a future arena league quarterback—has managed to throw 29 touchdowns against just three interceptions.

The Trojans are plus-9 in turnovers, which is 12th best nationally.

The Bruins were very weird and inconsistent to start the season, even though their wins over Virginia in Charlottesville and at home against Memphis continue to look solid—more so than they appeared at the time.

But the team imploded against both Utah and Oregon at the Rose Bowl–two teams they should have slugged with until the final bell. The Utah game was an undisputed upset that dropped them precipitously. But as Utah has continued to win games both at home and on the road, the loss has become more palatable.

The Bruins have battled back to no. 11 in the AP poll on the wave of four straight wins. The offense has been a blue-collar group with running back Paul Perkins and quarterback Brett Hundley serving as high-grade management.

Penalties had killed the team early on—but those have been cut down. Sacks blew the offense to bits at first—23 in the first five games—but in the last five it’s been only eight. The Bruins have hit their stride and Hundley again looks like one of the best players anywhere.

UCLA’s defense has surrendered a lot of points—27 a game, 79th worst—but has bailed itself out on more than one Saturday with timely and devastating takeaways. It has been a roll-of-the-dice group but they have made a few passes tossing sevens.

USC is out of playoff contention. The Bruins, should they win out, would have the proverbial chip-and-a- chair-and-a-chance. The conference title is alive for both teams.

That’s all there is to it. The Victory Bell, a 295 pounder that swung on a Southern Pacific locomotive back in its own day, is on the line. It’s worn true-blue the last two seasons, but USC would like to see it back in cardinal.

The Rose Bowl Saturday will determine which she’ll wear.