When commissioner Larry Scott and the Pac-12 wrapped up their $3 billion television deal last year, everything changed. No one has complained about the money, and even though the jury is still out on the Pac-12 Network, the conference has to be happy with the increased visibility gained through national telecasts on FOX and ESPN, but it hasn't been perfect.
Take a look at this Saturday's game between Stanford and UCLA. Back in October there was a lot of complaining in Mighty Card Nation about the scheduling of Big Game in the middle of the season, but then it was only about tradition. Now we see there's a practical reason to keep things as they were.
By scheduling an interdivisional matchup on this final weekend of the regular season, the Pac-12 has fallen into a terribly awkward situation. UCLA has already clinched the Pac-12 South and a spot in the conference championship game. Stanford needs a win to win the North and take a seat on the other side of the table. If all we were talking about were two teams playing each other six days apart, that would be bad enough. But it gets worse. Both teams have an incentive to lose.
If UCLA wins on Saturday, they'll face Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game. There's a line of thinking out there -- and it makes sense -- pointing out that the Bruins would have an easier path to the Rose Bowl if they were to lie down on Saturday and then play for real next Friday. Much easier to beat Stanford once after resting your players the week before than to have to beat them this week and Oregon the next.
If Stanford is set on the Rose Bowl, they have to win out. But what if the main goal is to play in a high profile bowl game with a big pay day? If the goal is a BCS bowl game, the way to guarantee that is to lose on Saturday. Stanford would finish 9-3, UCLA would likely pick up a third loss to Oregon next week, and the Cardinal would end up in the Fiesta Bowl. If Stanford wins this week and loses to UCLA next week? Hello, San Antonio.
So, yes, it's all terribly awkward, but at least it will probably convince the powers that be to fix the schedule. We might not be guaranteed to play Cal on the third weekend of November each year, but I can't imagine we'll ever again play a team from the South on the final week of the regular season.
Ah, but there are more important things to talk about, aren't there? Back when it was assumed that Oregon would blitz through conference play and waltz to the national championship game, this match up with UCLA looked like it might determine which team got to back into the Rose Bowl. Now, of course, it's even more important.
As great as the Stanford teams were under Andrew Luck, especially in 2010 and '11, they were never able to win a Pac-12 championship. This group has a chance to do that, and they can move a step closer to that goal with a win in Pasadena on Saturday afternoon.
It's tempting to dismiss UCLA as pretenders, simply because they've struggled a bit over the past few years, but these Bruins should present a serious challenge. They lost by seven to Oregon State and two weeks later were inexplicably crushed by Cal, 43-17, but they've won five straight game since then and averaged more than 48 points a game over their last four.
Their offense centers around Doak Walker finalist Johnathan Franklin, an All-America on and off the field. He's topped the century mark eight times out of eleven games, totalling 1,441 yards with ten touchdowns. He's the real deal.
Perhaps the most exciting player on the UCLA roster, however, is redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley. He possesses the same skill set as Kevin Hogan, but he's been doing it all season long and his numbers are impressive. He's third in the Pac-12 in passing yardage, third in touchdowns, and fourth in passer rating, and he's also rushed for 282 yards and eight touchdowns.
Of course, this won't be the first time the Stanford defense faces a team with a mobile quarterback and a Doak Walker finalist in the backfield. Chase Thomas, Shayne Skov, Alex Carter, and company will have to duplicate their efforts from a week ago if they expect to contain Hundley and Franklin.
For more on UCLA, here's Greg from Bruins Nation. (I took part in a Stanford roundtable over at their site with Scott Allen of Rule of Tree. Click over and check it out.) Anyway, here's what Greg has to say...
I live in the Los Angeles area, so I know how insufferable Trojan fans can be. Tell me about how sweet last weekend's victory was for UCLA and the fanbase.
It's too good to explain. It's big enough in the first place that they are our rival, but we've been on the beating end of the stick for a very long time, and many of the recent games were really humiliating. This win helps restore some pride from that. It also meant a lot because we were the better team Saturday, and this wasn't just a heroic gutty performance in a rivalry game, and that gives Bruins fans reason to believe that the program is going in the right direction again.
How are fans feeling about Jim Mora? I liked Rick Neuheisel and wanted him to do well at UCLA, but it seems like Mora has definitely been the right pick. Aside from the record, how is the program different under him as compared to how it was the last few years?
We all liked Rick, too, and still do, but it was clear over the last two years that he wasn't a very effective coach (though some of that came from the lack of support from the Athletic Department). I think Mora came in with no affinity for the way they have always done things in Westwood, and it was a desperately needed change of mindset. Mora brought in a great coaching staff (thanks Pac-12 Conference $$), which is something Neu never truly had, and has really instilled a no-nonsense, professional-like attitude in the program. Their execution on the field really reflects that. Given the results, Bruin fans are thrilled with Mora and his direction so far. The next step will be to see if the program can maintain success on a consistent basis over the coming years.
I think the player I'm most looking forward to watching on Saturday is Brett Hundley. When he arrived two years ago he was cast as the savior. How has he done this year? What are his strengths and weaknesses? Does he ever show his youth, or has he gotten past that by now?
You've picked a good one to watch. Hundley has played beyond anyone's expectations, except maybe his own and Mora's, and Neuheisel's. Despite being a redshirt freshman taking his first snaps ever this year, he has displayed tremendous poise, good decision making, and real leadership. The players really do look to him as the leader on the field and in the locker room. The only real signs of freshmandom are that he sometimes holds the ball too long in the pocket and that has upped his sack numbers. He came in with a good arm and good wheels, but his accuracy and decision making on the field have improved steadily through the year and have made him a weapon at QB and not just a game manager.
Johnathan Franklin is having a monster year. What has made him so great? Do you expect him to put up more big numbers against the Cardinal defense?
Franklin has a great work ethic and drive to succeed, and it can be seen in all phases of his life. He refers to himself a student who also plays football. He has already graduated. He (and guard Jeff Baca) visit kids at the Children's Hospital every week. He has publicly said he wants to become Mayor of Los Angeles so he can better give back to his community (he grew up in South Central). So I think it's really his underlying character that has made him so great. Part of his success on the field is undoubtedly offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's system which gets the ball to players in space a lot. Franklin is very quick on cuts and accelerates quickly, so when he gets any sort of opening, he can turn it into a big play.
In general, what can we look for from the Bruins on offense? What's the style of play?
Mazzone was the OC at ASU last year, so the offense looks similar to what they did, but with more of an inside running game this year. The Bruins run a spread offense that works the field horizontally a lot, with lots of quick passes laterally to get the ball outside. It also uses Franklin's strong inside running to keep the defense honest which opens up the outside more. They try to run at a high tempo similar to Oregon to create mismatches and then run plays to exploit them. Stanford will appreciate our TE, Joseph Fauria, and WR Shaquelle Evans has become Hundley's most reliable target, but the Bruins consistently have 9 or more receivers with catches in games. So far, the offense has been really effective. I think the Bruins probably have a more diverse passing attack than the Ducks, but we still have to have the run game working to make the offense go. We saw what an amazing game your defense played against Oregon, and that scheme should translate well for you this weekend. The two teams that bottled up the offense did so by really stuffing the inside run game. It will be an interesting matchup on Saturday.
I've heard the best player on the UCLA defense used to be a running back. Can that possibly be true? How has Anthony Barr made the transition from fullback to linebacker, and what makes him so great?
Anthony Barr played some LB in high school, but came to U.C.L.A. as a running back and promptly disappeared as an F back in the pistol offense. But of course, lots of people disappeared in the pistol. Barr and Mora, as they tell it, both independently came to the conclusion in fall camp that Barr should work in at the OLB spot in the new 3-4 defense this year, and with that the Bruins struck gold. Barr is big and athletic and really quick. He can't bull rush an offensive tackle but uses his quickness to elude them or hit gaps. He is also a fundamentally very good tackler. While Barr is undoubtedly our biggest revelation on defense, the Bruins best defender is still inside LB Eric Kendricks, who leads the team in tackles. He is another great athlete and who uses his aggression and speed to make plays.
Who else should we watch for on defense? How do you expect that they'll attack Kevin Hogan and the Stanford offense?
The strength of the Bruins' defense is the front seven. None of them are overly big, but they all use speed and athleticism to make plays. Besides Kendricks and Barr, defensive ends Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh have had a great year. Their play has really helped free up the linebackers, where Kendricks, Barr, Damien Holmes and Jordan Zumwalt are all excelling. The Bruins are deep along the D line so the rotation has kept players strong throughout the game. The Bruins weakness on D is the secondary, so they need to stop the pass up front by getting pressure and forcing the QB's to change their timing and release points to disrupt the passing attack. Also, they will have a mighty challenge dealing with Stepfan Taylor. The front 7 have have shown some vulnerability against big physical O lines like Stanford has, so the Bruins will really have to focus on winning first down against Taylor to set up longer second and third downs to make Stanford more one dimensional, which shifts the advantage back to the Bruin defense and their speed.
Finally, what about the final result? How do you expect the game to play out, and what do you see as the final score? Also, do you buy into this idea that the Bruins would be better off losing this weekend so they can play Stanford next week in the Pac-12 Championship game instead of Oregon?
I never pick against my team, and I never pick against my host, so there's my cop-out on giving you a score right off the bat. Haha - sorry! I will say that Stanford has much more riding on this game than the Bruins, and that will count for something. The Bruins are also coming off a major high from beating Southern Cal, so it will be interesting to see how well they can turn around and prepare for an even better opponent right away. I would never think that any team should ever not try to win a game, no matter what the ramifications are on who you might play the following week, and Mora has made that message very clear this week, so expect the Bruins to play their best game. Besides, if things fall just right, the Bruins can host the Pac-12 title game, so there are big rewards for winning. These are both well coached teams with balanced offenses with solid defenses. I think both defenses will have the advantage over their opposing offenses this weekend, so I expect a relatively low scoring game that will come down to which side can exploit a matchup here and there and execute those advantages.
From Bruins Nation, good luck and Happy Thanksgiving to all the Stanford folks out there. We hope everyone making the trip enjoys Pasadena, and that we see you back there the following week. ;-)