59F Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, CA
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel isn't apologizing for the fact that his team can earn a Pac-12 South Division title.
It won't be easy against the conference's hottest team - and perhaps its best.
The Bruins can earn a berth in the inaugural Pac-12 title game if they can end their four-game losing streak to their arch-rivals, surging No. 10 USC, on Saturday night at the Coliseum.
UCLA (6-5, 5-3) is in second place in the South behind USC (9-2, 6-2), but the Trojans are ineligible for the postseason and will be playing their season finale.
The Bruins can guarantee a berth in the title game with a victory. A loss would open the door for Utah and Arizona State to catch them and win the South instead.
"We find ourselves at 6-5 and, more importantly, with a chance to win the South Division," Neuheisel said. "There weren't very many people in this room who believed that to be possible at the start of the season. Say all you want about the lack of great teams on this side of the division or blah blah blah, but the bottom line is that we're playing for a championship."
The former quarterback reminisced back to his playing days with the Bruins, when he went 3-2 against the Trojans.
"We're playing 'SC for the championship," Neuheisel said. "That's the way it should be. That's the way it used to be. When I was in school, this was the game you always pointed to. In 1981, if we had beat them, we would have gone to the Rose Bowl. My senior year, we needed to beat them to go to the Rose Bowl. It's the nature of the beast."
It's clear that USC will be eager to end the title hopes of its city rival and end the 2011 season on a high note. The Trojans moved into the top 10 after last Saturday's 38-35 win over then-No. 4 Oregon.
"I think this was a defining game for us," quarterback Matt Barkley said. "We set ourselves apart on both sides of the ball."
Barkley threw for four touchdowns and 323 yards. His 33 TD passes lead the Pac-12 in a season in which probable No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck of Stanford has received much of the hype.
Last week's big effort came despite star receiver Robert Woods playing through a number of injuries. Woods still had seven catches for 53 yards and two scores.
Woods' 13 touchdown catches and 99 receptions lead the conference and his 1,179 yards rank him third. He needs four catches to break Keyshawn Johnson's single-season conference record, set in 1995.
Freshman Marqise Lee has also been impressive, catching eight passes for a season-high 187 yards and one touchdown last week. Lee is 81 yards shy of 1,000.
The Trojans have averaged 42.0 points over their last four games, with Barkley amassing 14 touchdowns to three interceptions in that span.
The strong recent play has given hope to a program that was under a cloud when Lane Kiffin took over as coach before last season, with USC facing a two-year postseason ban that will end after this game.
"They're a lot of young guys," Kiffin said. "There are very few seniors on the roster. I think half our roster has never played college football before this year. For these guys to come together like they have over the last five or six weeks has been great to see. We're very excited for our fans and for our players."
The Trojans will be favored to continue their recent dominance of UCLA, winning the last four meetings by an average of 18.3 points. USC has won the last six home matchups by an average of 24.5 points.
Bruins quarterback Kevin Prince completed 10 of 22 passes for 90 yards with two interceptions two years ago in a 28-7 loss to USC. He missed last year's game with a knee injury.
Barkley has a 63.5 completion percentage with two TDs and three interceptions and 404 total passing yards in his two previous matchups with UCLA.
"This season will really help for recruits for next year," Barkley said. "Next year is going to be really special."
The Bruins want to take advantage of the opportunity they have this season.
"In years past, when we've had the opportunity to be really cutthroat, we haven't done it," said UCLA safety Tony Dye, who had a team-high 13 tackles and an interception last season against USC. "This is exactly the mentality we need to take into next week."