Coming off the loss against Utah, there is a perceivable letdown mindset, a post-Utah malaise, which has tended to dampen the excitement and build-up over the UCLA/Oregon game this week.
For those of you still in the funk, snap out of it. The game against Oregon is, perhaps, the biggest game of the Jim Mora Era. If UCLA beats Oregon it will be Mora’s biggest win – both emotionally and literally. Oregon is ranked #11/#12, and that would be the highest-ranked team UCLA has beaten under Mora. The next-highest ranked team UCLA has beaten was just two weeks ago, when UCLA trounced then-#15-ranked Arizona State. But UCLA was ranked #12 when it faced ASU, so it wasn’t an upset. This week, if UCLA beats Oregon, it will not only be against the highest-ranked team UCLA has beaten, but an upset, which adds to the element of this being UCLA’s biggest win under Mora.
You could make a case that the win last year against USC, in the Coliseum, when the Trojans were ranked #23, is the biggest win to date.
But the Oregon game is now bigger.
The USC game recently hasn’t carried that big of stakes for UCLA. When you have Stanford and Oregon consistently ahead of the Bruins in the rankings during Mora’s tenure, being the two programs that have stood between UCLA and a Pac-12 Championship two of the last three years, a win over either of those two would be considered a true break-through win. Stanford and Oregon have been the royalty of the Pac-12 in recent history, with either team having won the conference championship in each of the last five years (Oregon in 2009-2011, Stanford 2012-2013).
Oregon and Stanford are clearly the two Pac-12 teams still standing in Mora’s way.
There’s also a tangible element that a win over Oregon would be a milestone because of the Duck’s innovative offense – that UCLA would be among the few teams that can actually scheme and play well enough to overcome Oregon’s attack.
Given the situation with the season, too, it’s a huge game. UCLA is 4-1 and 1-1 in the Pac-12 South. It now has what was an unanticipated loss against Utah on its record, so to keep competitive in the Pac-12 South it can’t afford to put up another loss so early in the conference race, with six more conference games remaining on the schedule. A loss to Oregon would severely narrow UCLA’s chances for a Pac-12 South Championship.
On the national scale, a win could move up UCLA in the national ranking, and keep it still in contention, even if remotely, for a spot in the College Football Playoff. A loss might very well remove UCLA from the rankings and almost assuredly eliminate it from any Playoff consideration.
There’s also the morale factor. Two losses in a row could potentially be devastating to this team, something it could struggle to overcome for the remainder of the season. UCLA, under Mora, has only lost successive games when Oregon and Stanford have had something to do with it, to Stanford twice in a row in 2012, and to Stanford and Oregon last season on consecutive weeks.
And there are those pesky expectations. Before the season, UCLA was getting well-hyped (You might remember some college football people predicting the Bruins would win the national championship). UCLA fans, too, were expecting a break-through season, one that, at the very least, included UCLA among the elite teams in the country. A win over Oregon Saturday continues to sustain those expectations, while a loss makes it very difficult, with the schedule ahead for the Bruins. UCLA can still live up to the season's expectations with a win; without it, probably not.
So, while the loss to Utah last week has very well taken some of the emotional luster off the Oregon game, the stakes and the drama remain. It’s the biggest game of the Mora era to date, with a huge amount riding on it.
We'll see if the Bruins are good enough to take that step.