35F Autzen Stadium, Eugene, OR
This can't be what Pac-12 organizers had in mind for the newly renamed conference's first title game.
UCLA will become the first team with six losses to play for a conference crown in Rick Neuheisel's final game as Bruins coach Friday night on the road against heavily favored No. 8 Oregon.
Oregon (10-2, 8-1) won the North Division and has reached double digits in victories for the fourth straight season.
UCLA (6-6, 5-4) never reached those heights in going 21-28 in four years under Neuheisel, who was fired Monday less than an hour before conducting the Pac-12's promotional teleconference for this game. The Bruins captured the South despite finishing two games behind USC, which was serving a two-year postseason ban.
"Rick was a great representative for our school, and I'll always be grateful for that," athletic director Dan Guerrero said. "I believe the sign of a good program is consistency. We just weren't there. We certainly had some losses that were of epic proportions ... in the second half of the season, and that simply wasn't good enough."
The Bruins' 50-0 loss to the arch-rival Trojans last Saturday was probably the last straw for Guerrero. Neuheisel will be allowed to coach this game.
"I thanked Dan for the opportunity," said Neuheisel, who quarterbacked the Bruins from 1980-83. "I don't need reasons and all that kind of stuff. Certainly when you're the UCLA coach, you'd like to play better against USC. I know that. We had our chances, but when you lose in the fashion we did, that's a difficult pill to swallow."
UCLA is a 30-point underdog against Oregon. These teams did not meet this season, and the Ducks won 60-13 at home in 2010.
The athletic department's timing for the firing has upset some Bruins, given the short week of preparation for this title game.
"We don't care if they don't believe in us," tight end Joseph Fauria said. "They wouldn't be the first. We're all focused on going up there Friday and getting that win."
Oregon will have a major advantage in playing at home in this new format. The Ducks, winners of 22 of their last 23 games at Autzen Stadium, are trying to capture the their third straight conference title.
"We're at home in front of our home crowd and I know our guys will be ready to play," coach Chip Kelly said.
The Ducks boast the nation's fifth-best rushing attack at 291.0 yards per game, thanks to FBS leading rusher LaMichael James. He ran for 123 yards and two scores in last year's rout of UCLA.
Darron Thomas threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns in that contest. Thomas has 27 touchdown passes to five interceptions this season.
"Darron's done a great job," Kelly said. " I think he's only thrown five picks on the season - two of them went through our receivers' hands."
Neuheisel will be gone partly because his 'Pistol' offense produced only 36 touchdowns - the conference's fourth-worst total. Oregon faced a similar offense in its Sept. 10 home opener, a 69-20 win over Nevada .
"It's a different offense than we faced from most of our opponents," Kelly said. "We did play Nevada earlier in the year, and that's really where the offense started with coach (Chris) Ault. So we got a little bit of an understanding of it."
Any hope for the Bruins probably rests on whether the tailback tandem of Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman can get untracked. Franklin had a team-high 912 yards during the regular season and Coleman had a team-best 11 touchdown runs.
UCLA ranks third in the Pac-12 at 193.3 rushing yards per game.
"Both Franklin and Coleman are real tough running backs," Kelly said. "They do a great job with their scheme, there's a lot of misdirection, there's a lot of moving parts to their offense, with fly motion and extra tight ends and unbalanced sets."
The winner of this contest will play the winner of the inaugural Big Ten championship between No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Neuheisel wouldn't coach that game even if the Bruins pull the upset Friday, and said he doesn't know what his future holds.
"This has kind of hit me between the eyes here a little bit," Neuheisel said. "I've been on one track, which is just to do the best I can with this particular team. That will be the case at least through Friday, and then we'll make any decisions on which course I take."