Three weeks into the season, Oregon had beaten Ohio State on the road and UCLA had humbled Louisiana State at the Rose Bowl, and the Pac-12 possessed the two biggest bragging-rights wins in the country. This was downright exotic for West Coast college football observers, and so I behaved like one does when evaluating national contenders — I allowed myself to look ahead.
Oct. 23 screamed from the schedule:
Oregon at UCLA.
Chip Kelly hosting the program he made — or is it the program that made him? — with College Football Playoff positioning and conference standing on the line. Theoretically, a rare top-10 showdown staged in college football’s most iconic venue.
For those who joined me in early-season delirium, we can all laugh now. The Bruins lost a heartbreaker to Fresno State and took a beatdown by Arizona State — both at home — and the Ducks fell apart and squandered a near-certain victory at Stanford. On Friday night, Oregon escaped California, which still has not won against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, and provided more evidence that its win over the Buckeyes was pure mastery on any given Saturday.
Everything that has happened since Oregon beat Ohio State has been a predictable disappointment, validating what folks in the Central and Eastern time zones think of Pac-12 football — very little. But thanks to UCLA’s 24-17 win over Washington at Husky Stadium on Saturday night, Oct. 23 still has plenty of juice. ESPN's College GameDay will host its show in Los Angeles ahead of the big game at the Rose Bowl.
In fact, it should still be the game of the year for the Pac-12, and, sure, maybe that’s just one more reflection of how far the league has fallen since Kelly was wearing a green and yellow visor instead of the UCLA blue and gold one he’s brought to fashion this fall.
We’re coming to next weekend’s kickoff at the Rose Bowl — set for 12:30 p.m. on ABC — with much more realistic expectations. That’s a good thing. Oregon, even with one loss and a great win on its résumé, is unlikely to make the playoff, and UCLA remains at the stage of program development where going to its first bowl game since 2017 could be seen as a sign of progress if you’re a Kelly apologist.
The Bruins, now 5-2 and 3-1 in the league, deserve credit for going to Seattle, playing another national prime-time game against a desperate team with a proud history and getting out of there unscathed.
Do they look like what we imagined Sept. 4 when they were running the ball all over an LSU program that won the 2019 national championship? Of course not. But with wins over Stanford, Arizona and Washington in conference play, UCLA has taken an important step in 2021. There is nothing easy about winning when you’re supposed to — a position Kelly’s Bruins are in for the first time.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, playing with an injured shoulder, is showing guts that many in his own fan base didn’t know he had. On Saturday against a seasoned Washington defense, he completed 21 of 26 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns — without his favorite receiver Kyle Philips, who did not dress — and rushed 12 times for 87 yards and a touchdown. “DTR” and Kelly shared a long embrace after the game, and it’s clear the words they exchanged were heartfelt.
UCLA nearly beat Oregon last year at Autzen Stadium, and while the Ducks will carry a top-10 ranking into this game, the Bruins should feel confident. Control Oregon star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux just enough, and UCLA can eliminate the Pac-12 from the playoff discussion while reminding all that there is a story line worth following in Los Angeles beyond who will be the next coach at USC.
Utah’s 35-21 win Saturday over Arizona State gave the Bruins’ Pac-12 South hopes a jolt, too. If UCLA was to beat Oregon and win at Utah on Oct. 30, it would find itself back in serious contention. Of course, if we’ve learned anything this season, it is not to look ahead.
UCLA-Oregon’s big-game vibes remain intact somehow, and I will be happy to live in the present.
The LSU Tigers showed some real fight for embattled head coach Ed Orgeron, outlasting No. 20 Florida 49-42 on Saturday in Baton Rouge. Ultimately, though, these were just two teams who recently lost to Kentucky.
Hours after this commentary was first published, Sports Illustrated's Ross Dellenger reported LSU and Orgeron reached a separation agreement. Orgeron is expected to finish the season, but he will not return in 2022.
USC now has competition as it searches for a head coach.
Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich awaits word on whether his request for a “religious exemption” to justify not getting the COVID-19 vaccination will fly with the state of Washington, which in August mandated employees at state universities must be vaccinated.
In September, it looked as if Rolovich could be headed toward a termination due to his team’s on-field performance, as the Cougars started 1-3. But Washington State has run off three straight wins over Pac-12 North foes Cal, Oregon State and Stanford. Perhaps the plot has thickened in Pullman?
Monday is the state deadline to either be vaccinated or have an exemption. If Rolovich does not have an answer on his exemption request, what happens? Stay tuned.
Can a quarterback who didn’t start his first game until halfway through the season win the Heisman Trophy? If so, Oklahoma true freshman Caleb Williams may be putting together quite an argument.
A week after saving the Sooners’ season in a thrilling comeback victory over rival Texas, Williams passed for 295 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 66 yards and a touchdown in No. 4 Oklahoma’s 52-31 win over Texas Christian.
Beyond the numbers, it’s been remarkable seeing the way Williams has raised the level of everyone around him compared to when Spencer Rattler (the Heisman favorite to begin the year) was playing.
With Williams, Oklahoma appears to have national championship upside.
Freshly ranked No. 2 in the polls, Iowa was already being written off as a national championship contender due to its subpar offense and overall Iowa-ness. But few of the Hawkeyes’ many detractors could have imagined they would implode this quickly.
Purdue roughed up Iowa 24-7 in Iowa City, picking off Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras four times.
America, get ready for No. 2 Cincinnati.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.