June 21, 2024

At the beginning of the season, many assumed that USC would be spending this week off getting healthy for the Pac-12 Conference championship game, fresh off a win over UCLA in the Coliseum.

The Bruins would be trying to salvage the end of their season, then, against California at the Rose Bowl.

Instead, UCLA sent the Trojans hobbling into a long offseason with a 38-20 humbling. It was the kind of dominant rivalry performance that deserved to be the Bruins’ ending note to the 2023 regular season.

UCLA rightfully celebrated over the weekend as the toast of the town. Chip Kelly rang the Victory Bell and looked about as buoyant as anyone could remember afterward. Quarterback Ethan Garbers and his teammates crafted a mocking Instagram post that mimicked the one Caleb Williams posted after the Trojans’ victory last year. The whole thing, especially coming off a loss to Arizona State loss a week earlier, seemed cathartic.

And now? Now the Bruins have to get up for Cal, a competent opponent that desperately wants to win the last Pac-12 contest between the programs and clinch bowl eligibility.

The privileged program across town nearly always finishes its season with a rivalry home game, alternating between UCLA and Notre Dame. Next year will mark the fourth straight season the Bruins have played another game after facing the Trojans.

On Monday, I asked Kelly whether he would prefer that UCLA finish with USC. He recalled a conversation he had with Ken Niumatalolo, the program’s director of leadership who coached at Navy the previous two decades.

“He mentioned to me that he wanted to see what the [team’s] reaction was on Sunday, and I was like, ‘I’m confused, Ken, what do you mean?’ ” Kelly said. “And he goes, ‘Well, our game is Army-Navy. I could never imagine playing a game the week after the Army game, because of what goes into that game.’ So, it’s always kind of been like that in the Pac-12. We’ll see as we go forward.”

If Kelly is willing to take on the question and give a real answer, you know there’s something to it for the Bruins.

In 2024, UCLA’s last game is against Fresno State in the Rose Bowl. The Bruins lost to the Bulldogs there in 2018 and 2021. The game was supposed to be played in September where it belongs, but it was moved to the end as part of the Big Ten’s first attempt at scheduling for 18 teams. UCLA is allowing its new league a mulligan on this one, it seems.

I brought the issue to UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond, who was happy to state his stance.

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond, left, and offensive lineman Yutaka Mahe with the Victory Bell on Nov. 18, 2023.

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond, left, and offensive lineman Yutaka Mahe roll the Victory Bell off the Coliseum field after the Bruins’ win over USC on Saturday.

(Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Our intention is to play our rival the last game of the year every season,” Jarmond said, “and we’ve made that clear to the Big Ten and our network partners that’s our preference. It’s important to us that we finish the year with our rival and with the move to the Big Ten, we’re hopeful that it can work itself out in the near future.”

The Big Ten should certainly be able to set up a Crosstown Rivalry finale every other year at the Coliseum. The alternate year is complicated by the tradition of USC-Notre Dame playing the Trojans’ home game as a finale.

UCLA needs the Big Ten to step in and prioritize a scheduling model that benefits both L.A. schools, not just one. Perhaps NBC, Notre Dame’s longtime media partner and now a Big Ten partner, can broker something. As it stands, NBC gets the USC-Notre Dame game only when it’s in South Bend, Ind., in October. The USC home game would theoretically be up for grabs between Fox, NBC and CBS now.

No matter how it’s decided, magnifying the Big Ten’s newly acquired West Coast rivalry is the right move.

“It’s a great game, it’s a special game,” said former UCLA quarterback Cade McNown, the only starting quarterback with a 4-0 record in the game. “The only thing that bums me out about the game nowadays is that it’s not the last game of the year. I don’t know who came up with — I mean, I get the USC-Notre Dame rivalry, but UCLA-Cal, it’s just, there’s nothing like the UCLA-USC game, period. To me, that should always be the final game of the year for both teams.

“And by the way, I don’t know if anybody’s noticed, L.A.’s a pretty big market and if you actually promoted that game properly — like whoever owns that game from a broadcasting perspective — you would think they would just be all over that as the final game of the year, like its own mini-bowl game. It should be billed as such, right? So I think a little bit of that gets lost from the decision-making that’s made back East in terms of how this all gets done, but clearly nobody from Los Angeles with an L.A.-based media contract is weighing in on this because they’re missing such a huge opportunity to make this a massive game every year.”

This week’s Big Ten rivalry week slate has the biggest draw of the season in Michigan and Ohio State facing off with 11-0 records once again. But there’s two other time slots after “The Game” that are begging for a matchup like USC-UCLA.

Filling the 3:30 Eastern time slot are Rutgers-Maryland, Northwestern-Illinois and Wisconsin-Minnesota.

If college football is truly run by the TV networks, then this change should already be in the works.

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