It was the worst loss in recent UCLA history. In fact, it's probably among the worst losses in all of UCLA history.
This sounds a bit like an over-dramatization, but when you really consider the implications of the loss and what it could possibly do to the current football program, it's really not that difficult to classify it so dramatically.
There wasn't a national championship riding on the game, or the Pac-10 championship. The national championship actually hasn't been riding on the UCLA/USC matchup too many times in the history of the rivarly. You have to go back to the ‘70s to find games where the Rose Bowl, or more, was consistently on the line, for the UCLA/USC game. Among those:
In 1978, both UCLA and USC came into the game 8-2, and 6-1 in the Pac-10, and playing for a Rose Bowl birth. UCLA was ranked 14th and USC 5th. USC won that game, 17-10, went on to beat Notre Dame and Hawaii to finish the regular season, then beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl and won a national championship. UCLA tied Arkansas in the Fiesta Bowl 10-10 and finished the year ranked 12th (UPI) and 14th (AP).
It was a similar story in 1976, but perhaps a little bigger. UCLA, was 9-0-1, and ranked 2nd in the country coming into the USC game, to face the #3-ranked, 8-1 Trojans. UCLA lost to USC 24-14, and USC went on to the Rose Bowl. UCLA then lost to Alabama in the Liberty Bowl and ended the season ranked 15th.
In 1973, UCLA came into the USC game 9-1, 6-0 in the Pac-8, and ranked 8th in the country. USC was 9th in the country, 8-1-1 and also 6-0 in the Pac-8. UCLA lost to USC, 23-13, USC went to the Rose Bowl and UCLA ended its season ranked 9th and 12th.
Perhaps other than these USC losses in the 1970s, probably the two other big losses in the last 30 years was the loss to Washington State at the Rose Bowl in 1988 and the loss to Miami in 1998. In both of these games, UCLA had a shot to win a national championship and squandered it. In 1988, with an incredibly talented team, ranked #1 in the country and 7-0, UCLA lost to the Cougars, 41-34. UCLA led big at halftime, but Washington State made a great comeback in the second half. UCLA had a chance to score a game-tying touchdown, with a first down at WSU's 4-yard line, but couldn't score. The 1998 Miami game is recent and fresh enough in everyone's minds that it doesn't need to be recounted here.
Perhaps another contender for being a big loss was the loss at Oregon State in 1999, merely because of how badly UCLA was beaten, 55-7. There were some other drubbings in there, like the 38-3 beating UCLA took at the hands of Oklahoma in 1986; the 42-3 loss to Nebraska in 1984; and the three huge losses in a row in 1994, to Nebraska, Washington State and Washington.
So, while there might be other games that, on paper, might seem like bigger losses, there still is a lot of stats to support how big of a loss this is. For one thing, since it's the USC game, the outcome is always heightened dramatically. Given that, UCLA hasn't been shut out by USC since 1949. They haven't lost by that many points to USC since 1979, when the Bruins lost, 49-14. The 1979 loss was also the fourth in a row at the time, the longest losing streak next to the current streak of three losses in 25 years.
And while the loss on Saturday didn't have any really big, immediate, on-paper implications – that is, it didn't decide a national championship or even the Rose Bowl -- it might have more long-term implications than how it affects current rankings, stats and bowl game invitations, and how it will look in the record books. Not in the last 30 years has there been a year when UCLA started out so promising, and then fell so far from that promise, with a USC loss working like the proverbial nail in the coffin. Sure, UCLA teams have come into the USC game ranked highly and lost. But those teams, most of the time, were ranked in the teens before the game, and finished the season maybe only a few rankings below that. Never in recent history has the UCLA program come off two non-winning seasons, then go to 6-0 and essentially #4 in the country (BCS) the next season, to talk of a national championship, to then fall to 6-4 and lose to USC in such dramatic fashion. Never has a USC loss been so dramatic in punctuating the collapse of a UCLA season than this loss. Never has it also worked to give USC a bowl bid, to give the corpse that has been the USC program in recent years a breath of new life like this loss did.
The power of this loss could reverberate for years to come in the football program. As we all know, probably the biggest cornerstone to establishing a consistently winning program is recruiting. More than likely, the loss on Saturday to USC will have a bigger impact on recruiting than any single game in recent UCLA history. On its own, UCLA undoubtedly lost credibility with recruits with that loss, both those who had UCLA on their list and those who have committed. Will it cause any recruits to de-commit? Probably unlikely. But UCLA will have to now work to save face with the committed recruits, and will have an uphill battle with those that had UCLA on its list. And if we're talking about drama – can you ever remember a more dramatic shift in recruiting in the UCLA program in recent years? A month ago, recruiting had the momentum of a bullet train. Recruits who hadn't considered UCLA before were now. A bunch of recruits who had been considering UCLA now had the Bruins #1 on their list. With the undoubted backlash UCLA recruiting will see as a result of this game (it's already been felt, merely a few days later, in some comments from recruits), in a matter of weeks, UCLA will have gone from the King of the Recruiting Hill to most likely its patsy.
And not only that, the game directly gave life to UCLA's biggest competitor in recruiting. The USC program was dead in the water in recruiting, even given UCLA's last three losses. But this loss will allow USC to turn the corner. They'll hang their recruiting hat on the fact that the new coaching staff was trying to put its program in order after the disarray from Paul Hackett's program. And, in its first, rebuilding year, it went 6-5, to a bowl game, and beat UCLA, in a year when UCLA was supposed to have its best team in decades. In a matter of weeks, USC's Pete Carroll and his staff went from being a huge question mark to recruits to now being credible – and UCLA's Coach Bob Toledo now being the question mark. Recruits were citing the coaching stability at UCLA just a few weeks ago as a reason they liked UCLA, which now, just about any recruit would question.
Everything about the program will be questionable for recruits. In the couple of days since the game, what you've heard recruits question UCLA as a potential choice. UCLA has 16 commitments and has nine more to give. It's too early to predict the extent that this loss will impact the quality of the players that take those remaining scholarships (and, again, if UCLA holds on to the 16 commitments). But whatever happens to UCLA in recruiting over the next 2 ½ months could very likely be one of the biggest factors in determining the success of the program for years. UCLA loses a lot of talent this year, and it needs to stockpile talent with next year's incoming class. If it doesn't, no matter who is coaching UCLA, it will be very thin, talent-wise, at many different positions over the next few years.
Many will point out that the season isn't over – that UCLA could in fact save some face with a dominating win over Arizona State December 1st and a solid bowl win. While that is probably true to an extent, there are losses that are so bad they leave an aftertaste, even after seemingly the program or team has recovered on the field. Bob Toledo's program was deeply affected by the loss to Miami in 1998 and there are many that believe it was permanently scarred by it. But even after the loss to Miami, UCLA still won the Pac-10, went to the Rose Bowl and finished the season ranked 8th in the nation. The Miami loss was only a fall from potential national greatness to relative success, rather than what the USC loss represents – a fall from relative success to mediocrity. And the fall is even greater given the hopes of national greatness that preceded it this season. In other words, the USC loss makes this fall far greater than the fall taken by the loss to Miami in 1998.
And since the loss to Miami, the UCLA football team has gone 16-18.
Obviously, it's impossible to foresee exactly what this loss could mean long-term for the program. But given many of these factors, it doesn't certainly bode well. It has hurt UCLA in recruiting. It has greatly precipitated the re-definition of the head coach from a man with job security to someone on the hot seat in practically record time. It has made the suspension of running back DeShaun Foster and the troubles of quarterback Cory Paus that much more pronounced (If UCLA had beaten USC, the Foster and Paus incidents would have been naturally swept under the carpet).
It's difficult to be so pessimistic, but the feeling right now is that this isn't something that can be patched up by a win over Arizona State and one in a bowl game. It's something that could have some very resonant long-term reverberations, in much the same way that the Miami loss did. But, again, when stacked next to each other, there is quite a bit of an argument that this loss could be more devastating in the long term than the Miami loss.
But what can the program do now? The program, right now is in ashes. To rise from those ashes would take a Herculean effort. It would take the coaching staff and the program to use this as a way for it to come closer together. Take the heat and the blame collectively, rather than pointing fingers. The UCLA coaches and players would have to pick themselves up and beat Arizona State convincingly and beat its bowl opponent convincing. The UCLA coaches would have to coach their butts off. If they were working 12 hours a day before, now they'd have to put in 15 hours a day. They'd have to use this as a motivational tool in coaching – and in recruiting. They'd have to decide that they were going to go out and win the uphill recruiting battle that they'll face over the next 2 ½ months.
More than anything this is why this loss was probably the most profound loss in recent UCLA history – because it will more than likely be thought of as the factor that either made or broke the current UCLA staff, and decided the direction of the program for the next few years.
And that's pretty damn dramatic…