Gap between rivals will swallow Neuheisel

UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel believes berth in conference title game is sign of improvement, but reality of situation is not in his favor.

Based on the criteria head coach Rick Neuheisel set forth, UCLA has officially closed the gap between itself and rival USC.

By virtue of Colorado's 17-14 upset win at Utah on Friday afternoon, the Bruins secured a berth in the inaugural Pacific-12 Conference championship game, representatives of the South division by virtue of the Trojans' postseason ban.

Regardless of the result Saturday in the Coliseum, UCLA will be in action Friday, Dec. 2, likely at Autzen Stadium to play No. 10 Oregon, with a berth in the Rose Bowl on the line.

That, Neuheisel said Monday during his weekly press conference, puts the two teams in the City of Angels on close to, if not equal footing.

"We got a chance to win the championship this week. That is closing the gap," he said.

If that's the only criteria, so be it.

But by every other objective measure, the scales remain tipped overwhelmingly in favor of USC.

The Victory Bell has been in its possession for 11 of the past 12 years.

They have been to seven BCS bowls and claimed seven conference championships since UCLA made its last appearance on New Year's Day at the end of the 1998 season.

Recruiting, NFL draft picks and general optimism are with Heritage Hall.

In two years, Lane Kiffin has rebuilt the roster and restored USC to its place among the conference's elite, best demonstrated by the impressive 38-35 win over the Ducks last weekend.

In two years, Kiffin has shown more progress than Neuheisel has in four.

In short, Neuheisel might be the only one that actually believes the gap has closed. And with his job on the line, it is the only pitch he has left.

He certainly can't make his argument for another season on his overall record (21-27), conference record (13-24), or record against USC (0-3, failing to score more than 14 points in any meeting).

He can't base it on recruiting, as the handful of high school players that chose UCLA over USC have either been colossal busts (tight end Morrell Presley), mild disappointments (wide receiver/cornerback Randall Carroll), or simply unable to stay healthy (safety Dietrich Riley).

He has no arguments left, aside from progress delivered by the native son.

Asked what the best part of being the coach at his alma mater was, Neuheisel said, "It's home. It's where I grew up and I never imagined anything else in terms of my dream job, of being in a position to take UCLA to where I think it belongs. It's been there before.

"I think there is still more to achieve and hopefully I get the chance to do it."

Neuheisel clearly cares for his school. He reminisced fondly of his win over USC as a senior, guiding the Bruins to the Rose Bowl in the process.

"Just being on that field against great players like Jack Del Rio and Duane Bickett and finding a way to beat them at the Coliseum for our return trip to the Rose Bowl was something special," he said. "They're long lasting memories."

But the recent memories have been less pleasant, of Neuheisel berating his quarterbacks on the sideline, of the fractured relationship with former offensive coordinator Norm Chow, of indefensible blowouts, of losses to USC.

Even a win Saturday is likely to be more reflective of a young USC team, of a roster that still has issues to be addressed than improvements made in Westwood.

The gap has not closed. It is so wide it is about to swallow Neuheisel.


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