2012 USC vs. UCLA preview: The monopoly is finally over (or not)!

Stephen Dunn

In both the Pac-12 South and BCS standings, USC is currently looking up at UCLA. Will that remain the case after this weekend, or is the monopoly ongoing?

Remember when, upon hiring Rick Neuheisel, UCLA took out an ad in the L.A. Times proclaiming that, "The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over"? Remember how Neuheisel went 21-30 in four seasons and was fired? Remember how fans reacted when Neuheisel was replaced by Jim Mora, Jr.? Hell, remember how I reacted? Things always turn out exactly how we think they will, don't we?

(Seriously, I ranked Tim Beckman ahead of Kevin Sumlin and Mike Leach ahead of Urban Meyer.)

A mere 51 months after the Times ad, we are finally getting a glimpse at what a monopoly-free L.A. might look like in practice. It isn't actually here yet, mind you, but in both the Pac-12 South standings (UCLA is 5-2, USC 5-3) and the current BCS standings (UCLA is 17th, USC 18th), USC is looking up at UCLA. The last time USC had trailed UCLA in the rankings before USC's loss to Oregon two weeks ago? November 2001. It hasn't been like this for very long, so it's not like we can differentiate between a blip and a long-term shift, but in a year that was supposed to see USC make a run at the national title, this has been a little jarring.

Biggest game of Mora's career || Ongoing USC-UCLA sword drama || Can USC continue dominance?

It's been a fun run for the Bruins, but if it is to continue for even one more week, they have to actually take out the Trojans on the field. UCLA hosts USC at 3:05 p.m. ET on Saturday (on Fox). Here's what we know about the matchup thus far:

UCLA is incredibly unpredictable.

UCLA has been one of the least predictable teams in the country this year, for reasons both good and bad:

So far this year, UCLA has crushed Arizona (28th in F/+) by 56 points, lost to California (64th) by 26, and crept by both Utah (56th) and Nebraska (10th). Without looking, I would have put a lot of money on the Bruins being in the top 5 in standard deviation. They are fourth.

This week's UCLA two-deep (PDF) features the following per-class breakout:

  • On offense: seven seniors, four juniors, six sophomores, seven freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
  • On defense: seven seniors, seven juniors, four sophomores, four freshmen or redshirt freshmen.

Led by quarterback Brett Hundley (a redshirt freshman), the Bruins' offense has been especially unpredictable in 2012. The Bruins were a ground-based killing machine in the first three weeks of the season, averaging 622 yards and 41 points per game and shredding what has turned out to be a strong Nebraska defense. The backfield duo of Hundley (7.1 yards per pass attempt, 10.1 yards per carry in those first three games) and running back Johnathan Franklin (66 carries for 541 yards in that span) was unstoppable and did quite a few favors for a defense that was still figuring a few things out. Then, things went a bit sour; UCLA lost two of three games, turning the ball over six times in a jarring, blowout loss to California and not completely showing up against Oregon State until it was too late.

In the Bruins' current four-game winning streak, meanwhile, the offense has looked both devastating (66 points and 611 yards in a blowout of Arizona) and pedestrian (354 yards and a bad turnover in a tight win over Utah, 334 yards and three turnovers in an eventually tight win over Washington State). The defense has shown serious signs of improvement, but the offense has grown in fits and starts. But with this youth, of course it has.

Never mind Hundley; UCLA's offensive line is absurdly young. True freshman Simon Goines has started all 10 games at right tackle. Redshirt freshmen Jake Brendel (center) and Torian White (left tackle) have done the same. Sophomore Xavier Su'a-Filo has started all 10 games at left guard. Only one upperclassman (senior guard Jeff Baca) starts, and only two others show up on the second string. Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone went all-in on youth at the start of the season and have lived to tell the tale. UCLA ranks a healthy 37th in Adj. Line Yards (an opponent-adjusted measure of a line's run-blocking) and 92nd in Adj. Sack Rate, and honestly, Hundley shares a decent amount of responsibility for the sacks. That this line is even competent speaks wonders of both the UCLA coaching staff and the line itself. Hundley could have a great line in front of him for his entire stay at Westwood.

Pass defense is a Bruin weakness.

When USC has the ball, it will face a decent challenge gaining yards on the ground. UCLA's run defense is decent and seems to have improved in recent weeks; Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, he of the 400-yard performance against Colorado, gained just 71 yards in 20 touches versus UCLA, and Utah's John White gained just 48 in 12 a few weeks earlier. Four members of UCLA's front four -- outside linebackers Anthony Barr and Damien Holmes, ends Cassius Marsh and Datone Jones -- have at least nine tackles for loss in 2012 out of UCLA's impressive 3-4 alignment (Barr has a whopping 17; only two players in the country have more than 17), and in the case of Holmes and Jones, quite a bit of the damage has been done versus the run. (Barr and Marsh, meanwhile, have made the lion's share of their plays rushing the passer.) USC backs Curtis McNeal and, perhaps, Silas Redd (who missed last week with an undisclosed injury, and whose status is unknown thanks to Lane Kiffin predictably joining the "no injury news, ever" club with a lot of other paranoid coaches) might find life difficult on Saturday.

That might not matter, of course, if UCLA cannot stop the USC passing game. And by the USC passing game, I mean Marqise Lee. Lee has shouldered an absurd amount of the load for the Trojans in 2012, and in recent weeks, despite two losses, it has seemingly paid off. His target rate (a player's targets divided by his team's total targets) of 41 percent is the second-highest in the country behind Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews (42 percent), and in the last three weeks he has caught 38 of 52 passes (a 73-percent catch rate) for 663 yards and five touchdowns. Plus, he has rushed for 68 yards and averaged 34 yards per kick return in that span.

Lee is the most dangerous receiver college football has seen in quite a while, and he has been at peak form in November. UCLA has experienced corners to throw at him -- starters Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are both seniors -- but the quality is debatable. Price does have four interceptions and five passes broken up, but the Bruins' defense ranks just 64th in Passing S&P+ (USC's offense ranks sixth) and 64th on standard downs (USC is 18th). USC throws to set up the run, and while UCLA's passing downs blitz is fantastic (the Bruins are third in the country in sacks), that won't matter much if USC doesn't actually face passing downs. Using Lee early on downs, and mixing in some Robert Woods and Nelson Agholor, USC could keep the UCLA defense terribly off-balance.

Shutdown Fullback previews USC-UCLA, sort of.

USC's defense loses leverage.

When offenses are run by young quarterbacks, you usually see an offensive coordinator attempting to protect him a bit. That goes double when you have an unusually inexperienced line. Perhaps you throw a lot on standard downs to keep defenses guessing, and you run a lot on passing downs to avoid disaster and survive to punt. Perhaps you unleash a series of short, easy passes on all downs.

But that's not the way UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone rolls. Passing downs are quarterback downs. And while UCLA does not pass an inordinate amount of time on passing downs (they pass 66 percent of the time, almost precisely the national average), when they do, sideline-to-sideline action is not predominant.

Against a set of great Pac-12 pass rushes, Brett Hundley has leaned on tight end Joseph Fauria (10-for-18 for 146 yards on passing downs) and Z-receiver Shaq Evans (12-for-17 for 133) to move the chains, occasionally taking shots downfield with redshirt freshman Steven Manfro and senior Jerry Johnson (combined: 15-for-30 for 190 yards). Sure, there are some dump-offs to running backs Johnathan Franklin and Jordon James (combined: 14-for-17, 170 yards) involved, and those plays are often successful. But there are almost no tendencies involved here. Mazzone leans on Hundley to make a play, and whether he is throwing to one of about five different receivers, or whether he is taking off and running, he gets the job done. UCLA ranks a solid 32nd in Passing Downs S&P+. If Hundley has time to make a decision, he usually makes a pretty good one.

USC, meanwhile, has suffered from an acute case of letting teams off the hook in 2012. The Trojans' defense ranks 31st on standard downs but falls apart, ranking just 76th on passing downs. They get no blitz assistance from linebackers on passing downs (they rank second in standard downs sack rate, 93rd on passing downs). Starting linebackers Hayes Pullard, Dion Bailey and Lamar Dawson have combined for just three sacks this year. That is not their job.

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has never been much for blitzing heavily, preferring to go from top-down with his Cover-2 defense, preventing big plays above all else and sacrificing a little efficiency in the process. This has killed USC at times this year against particularly efficient offenses. Against the spread attacks of Arizona and Oregon, USC allowed a combined 1,318 yards and 101 points.

Now, UCLA's attack is not Oregon's or Arizona's, but it's not bad. And in players like Fauria, Evans, Franklin and Hundley himself, the Bruins have a nice collection of high-efficiency players who could make a passive Trojans defense pay.

The balance of power has not yet shifted.

This is a golden opportunity for UCLA. Clearly. USC is in the middle of a disappointing season, sitting at 7-3 instead of 9-1 or 10-0 as predicted. Depth at the front of the defense has been an issue, as has the lack of congruity between Monte Kiffin's defensive approach and the offenses USC faces in the Pac-12. Plus, despite the Heisman hype and the fact that he throws just about the prettiest deep ball you'll ever see, Matt Barkley has only been good this year, not great. Despite Marqise Lee, despite Robert Woods, despite a decent run game, Barkley has faced a few too many pass rushers (he was sacked four times versus Stanford and twice versus Oregon) and has thrown a few too many ill-timed interceptions (two each in losses to Stanford, Arizona and Oregon). BUT…

…until UCLA takes the mantle on the field, USC still owns Los Angeles. The Trojans have still won the last four games in this series by a combined 134-28, and they have still won 11 of 12 in the series overall. They still rank better in overall F/+ (14th to UCLA's 30th), they still rank better on offense (19th in Off. F/+ to UCLA's 32nd), they still have the best player on the field (Lee, who gives USC a special teams advantage as well), and they basically break even on defense (32nd to UCLA's 30th).

UCLA has its best chance in years at beating USC -- F/+ picks say USC by just 4.8 -- but the Bruins still have to do it. The 2008 Times ad was one of the most perfect definitions of "jumping the gun" in college football's history, but while UCLA currently owns a half-game lead in the Pac-12 South and a one-spot lead in the BCS standings, we still probably shouldn't proclaim the monopoly over just yet.

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