Bruin Nation Vs. Trojan Army: The Battle For L.A.’s College Football Soul

By Emily Van Buskirk / @Emilnem

Los Angeles is no stranger to rivalries.

Like most cities across the country, the colors you wear identify the life choices you make for yourself in the sports world – whether it’s Dodger blue or Lakeshow purple and gold. Perhaps you prefer Blake Griffin dunks or hunger for Mike Trout home runs. However you show your support, one thing remains true for every fan: your colors don’t run.

College football is no exception, particularly the storied rivalry between USC and UCLA. From A-list coaches to Heisman winners, both programs have seen their greatness.

However, recent history has not been so kind to the Trojans: vacated victories, bowl bans, a forfeited Heisman trophy and abrupt coaching changes have plagued the program. While the AP voters believe the worst is over for USC, some remain skeptical. And a recent incident with second-year head coach Steve Sarkisian involving cinnamon flavored whiskey and fiery language at a donor event doesn’t help the program’s national brand. Neither do #DrunkSark and #SarkAfterDark hashtags.

UCLA head coach Jim Mora is no stranger to F-bombs, either, dropping one at a pep rally last year. He also recently made news for several comments directed at players during “Drama Camp” in San Bernardino.

The Bruins intensified the rivalry by winning three consecutive over USC in recent years. The rivalry always has major implications within the fertile recruiting grounds of Southern California. Both teams vying for the South Division and a spot in the College Football Playoff should elevate the friction even further.

However, Mora doesn’t necessarily see beating USC as the end all, be all. If they want to get to the playoff, it’s going to take more than a fourth win over the Trojans.

“I mean, we beat them three years in a row,” Mora said at Pac-12 media day. “I don't know about any lost opportunity there. Winning a national championship is more than just beating your crosstown rival. It's about beating Stanford, which we haven't done. Beating Oregon, which we haven't done.”

Sarkisian insists that winning the crosstown showdown doesn’t characterize his team, either.

“We know the importance of it,” Sarkisian said. “We know the value of that game. We know that game could ultimately decide the South Division championship, and they're a really good football team. Do I want to win? Yeah, sure, I want to go win that game. But that's not going to define our season. That game's not going to define our season. The entire 12, 13, 14, 15 games we play, that will define us. That game is going to be a piece of the puzzle.”

So what does define these two programs?

Mora chose to embrace his team’s personality, which he describes as “edgy,” and means to harness it for the 2015 season.

"The key is how we control it on Saturdays," Mora told the "It's no secret that has been a little bit of an issue at times. You want to find that line, where you're playing with a little bit of an edge, but never going over it."

On the field, the Bruins return 18 starters – the most in the Pac-12 – and have a solid arsenal of offensive weapons in running back Paul Perkins and wide receiver Jordan Payton. But the likely start of freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, coupled with a tough road schedule that includes Arizona, Stanford, Utah and USC, will force UCLA to iron out the kinks early if it wants to eclipse its No. 13 preseason AP poll ranking.

As for the Trojans, who were generously ranked at No. 8 in the AP preseason poll, their shortcomings can be summed up with some doctored Dre lyrics: What’s the difference between this year and last year? About three wide receivers, two defensive leaders and one place kicker.

And how quickly we forget the Boston College game last season, where USC allowed 452 rushing yards – 26.1 percent of their season total. Game’s like that can't happen this year if the Trojans are to return to prominence.

Yes, Cody Kessler is a great quarterback and yes, Adoree’ Jackson is an amazing cornerback – there is no denying the talented roster the Trojans boast. But Sarkisian is the one managing it; the same coach who is 0-9 against Arizona State and Oregon, two teams he called out in his pep rally rant and both of which USC plays on the road this season. So between the second toughest schedule in college football and the thin belief in Sarkisian’s ability to win championships, given that he has never won a conference or division title, or even posted double-digit victories, there is more than just cause for concern.

While USC’s roster may be more talent-laden (Pac-12s No. 1 O-line, D-line, LB’s & DB’s according to Phil Steele), UCLA’s head coach has won 29 games in his first three years at UCLA (the Bruins had won just 27 games in the previous five years before Mora).

So the question remains: Does LA’s college football soul rest on Troy’s talent? Or UCLA’s track record?

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