USC-UCLA: Great game, just not great rivalry

You want a great rivalry: USC-Notre Dame is one. UCLA-USC is nasty, contentious, important but just not one of the handful of elite rivalries at the top of college football's historic matchups.

It's not really a great rivalry. Sorry, Clay Helton, as much as you have to say that it is, it's not.

Or it better not be. Let's just say it this way: When and if the USC-UCLA Crosstown Rivalry becomes a great rivalry in college football, that is bad news for USC. The Trojans do not need another great rival. They have one in Notre Dame. No one needs two.

Not sure if that's mathematically, or logically, possible. To have a great rivalry, you need two great rivals in the same game. That's not the case here.

Great programs take decades to develop. Great rivalries even longer. UCLA may be on a hot streak vis-a-vis USC again. May have taken great advantage, much as the rest of the Pac-10 then and the Pac-12 now, knew they could when the NCAA pole-axed USC without a peep from their conference brethren who had been benefiting from USC's presence all these years.

And sure, you can talk about USC's 11 national titles to UCLA's one, the seven Heisman Trophies to one or that UCLA has played in just 12 Rose Bowls in its home stadium, winning just five and not since 1986. USC fans can recite the Trojans' unprecedented 24-8 Rose Bowl record with three straight and four of five through 2009.

But the difference between these programs might best be expressed by the current nominations for the All-Century Pac-12 Football Team. Among the first 100 players named at 10 position groups, there are 32 Trojans and just 13 Bruins. Seems about right.

And not enough for a great rivalry.

Sure, it was great growing up back in the Midwest on those cold early winter days to see the sun and the colors and the Song Girls and card sections (not sure if we ever saw those live but we'd seen film) and the big Coliseum crowds and Traveler. The pageantry was unmatched.

But if UCLA won, that meant the game mostly didn't matter. It was just a game. But if USC won, and the Trojans had already beaten Notre Dame, or were playing the Irish the next week, then the USC-UCLA game really mattered for more than LA bragging rights.

But just as a game. Not a great rivalry. Two teams in the same town. Two really different schools. Two really different fan bases.

But not really great historic rivals. Michigan-Ohio State -- great rivalry. Alabama-Auburn -- great rivalry. Army-Navy: great rivalry. Ditto for Texas-Oklahoma. Cal-Stanford was, not sure it still is. Florida-Georgia might still be.

Oklahoma-Oklahoma State: Good game, not a classic great rivalry. Same for Florida-Florida State: Give it some more time and see what happens with Georgia. Great rivalries play out over decades and they involve programs that can sustain themselves for decades.

Tennessee-Alabama -- not any more. Michigan-Michigan State -- not quite.

And as much as they really don't like each other, as much as they have cool trophies or names for their games, Oregon-Oregon State, Washington-Washington State, Arizona-Arizona State, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, Indiana-Purdue, Kentucky-Tennessee, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Iowa-Iowa State and on and on just don't quite get there.

Lots of interesting games. No great rivalries.

And for our purposes, a team cannot have two archrivals. Sorry Bruins. You're on your own.

Not that this is going to help USC Saturday. or at any time in this rivalry. This can be a tough matchup when the team you're playing in the game that matters most to your season right now treats it like it's bigger than anything else they'll be doing.

And for someone like USC's Su'a Cravens, it was as he said Wednesday, "just another game" for him now.

That was pretty much the way Pete Carroll figured it as his teams had a single goal each season, the Rose Bowl, and won eight of nine against the Bruins. And yet, the game that's unforgettable is that 13-9 loss in 2006 snapping second-ranked USC's NCAA record 63-game streak of scoring 20 points or more and costing the Trojans a shot at a national title.

That hurt as much as Rey Maualuga's hit on UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan that in the end didn't matter. It was just a hit. And this is mostly just a game -- wrapped in a series of wild swings.

UCLA won eight straight from 1991 through 1998, much of it a credit to USC coaching cluelessness. Then the Trojans won 12 of the next 13 before the NCAA -- and Jim Mora's prep work and motivation combined with more USC coaching cluelessness -- cost USC the last three.

The original record is 46-31-7 and a terrific tribute to UCLA for making it that close considering their late start. This game has meant a lot to them. And they've made the most of it when they haven't been outmanned -- and sometimes when they have been.

Whether any of that plays out Saturday, we have no way of knowing. Neither team is exactly on an solid upswing here. Sure, the Pac-12 South is on the line putting USC into the championship game for the first time in history.

And a loss here would mean most of this USC senior class would never have played in a winning game against the Bruins. Seems like that should be reason enough to make this game special. And it is. No way to say this isn't a one-of-a-kind game.

No other metropolitan area in the nation has two powerful and historic programs just 13 miles apart. Sorry but Houston and Rice don't count. Stanford and Cal are on opposite sides of the Bay and a lot farther apart.

But if this were a great rivalry, they wouldn't have to be advertising "tickets as low as $55" everywhere and hoping they get 85,000 Saturday. It's been four years since they've sold this game out and the last three games have produced about 8,000 unsold tickets a game. Great rivalries involve their fan bases more than that.

And yes, it's a nasty rivalry. In a class of its own because of the proximity of the fan bases. A bad result and you literally have to live with it for 12 months. And a rivalry remembered as much for bad games, it seems, as great ones.

Maybe Saturday will change that. But it won't make it a great rivalry. And USC better hope it never quite is.

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