The Battle for L.A.: USC eyes a playoff bid while UCLA, Chip Kelly search for relevance
The 2018 season is going to be an interesting one in Southern California
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Chip Kelly won the press conference this week at Pac-12 Media Day. Can this city and the nation be far behind?
Therein lies the dichotomy of a rock star coach landing in a rock star town with a rock star offense.
Chip Kelly-to-UCLA is moving too fast for a lot of us. Prior to Kelly's program-altering arrival, UCLA would have settled for their coach winning the campus.
Never mind press conferences, USC is used to winning championships. It all starts with a renewed Battle for Los Angeles.
This is not just about the USC-UCLA game; it's about the hearts, minds and guest spots on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." The rivalry itself is admittedly Alabama-Auburn Lite (OK, really lite), but it's still something in this city of myriad distractions.
Within that, the rivalry between the schools flares best when at least one of the programs is relevant. It's even better when both are.
Kelly reminded us that we're back to that point but for oddly different reasons. The Bruins' celebrity coach bopped into media day for what was essentially his first mass media availability since arriving in November 2017.
Trojans everywhere had to be watching in envy.
"Me and Bron?" Kelly said incredulously. A local columnist had just compared the coach's star power to that of the Lakers' new resident basketball superstar.
"Let's not," Kelly added. "I'm not sure about that one."
Meanwhile, another media member asked Trojans coach Clay Helton whether, in Year 3, he had the program "on schedule." Another wondered whether a contract extension made Helton feel more "comfortable."
All the man has done is win a Rose Bowl and Pac-12 title in his first two years as a full-time head coach. Helton's 21 wins are the most by a Trojans' coach in his first two seasons.This is the closest the program has been since the Pete Carroll dynasty.
Therein lies the battle within the Battle. Kelly is that rock star, returning to college after having gone 43-7 in four seasons at Oregon.
Helton is more of a rock, the soft-spoken son of a coach who paid his dues (two decades in the profession) before finally getting his shot at USC.
Kelly is also the rock star USC fans wish they had. Sadly, Helton starts from a deficit position with some USC loyalists because 1) he isn't Chip Kelly and 2) may never be.
"Inside our locker room, absolutely," USC linebacker Cameron Smith when asked if his coach gets enough credit. "We know exactly what he's done."
Outside of the locker room?
"I love the expectations," Helton said. "We represent something that's bigger than ourselves. As nice as winning a Rose Bowl and Pac-12 title was, like I told our guys, 'Let's don't pat ourselves on the butt until we win a national championship. … Then we'll pat ourselves on the butt and try to get another one.'"
L.A. loves its star power, but college football loves accountability. Helton has little of the former and a lot of the latter. But the concern in Troy is no matter how powerful USC gets, it can eventually be lapped by the school up the 405.
That hasn't happened in a long, long time, and it's one reason why Kelly-to-UCLA continues to spin heads.
If someone wants to compare the celebrity of 33-year-old global icon to a 54-year-old coach with a bit of a paunch, go right ahead in this town.
"I know exactly who LeBron James is," Kelly said. "So to put me and LeBron in the same sentence, the fact that we're both residents of Los Angeles is about as far as that one goes."
For now, even that is enough. The Bruins haven't done much of anything since 1998 when they made a failed heart-breaking run to the first BCS Championship Game.
Since then, USC has risen to dynasty level, been embroiled in an NCAA scandal and rebounded. Somebody needs to give Helton credit for that that last point.
Last year, USC sported a first-round quarterback (Sam Darnold) and highly-rated tailback (Ronald Jones Jr.), but the season -- and College Football Playoff consideration -- was defined by blowout loss at Notre Dame and an agonizing Friday night upset at Washington State.
"I still wake up at 3 a.m. in the morning and there is 1:49 on the clock in Pullman, Washington, and we're down three," Helton said of that 30-27 loss last season to Washington State. "That haunts me because I know that that game probably held us out of contention for having a chance at a playoff run."
This year's team, Helton says, will be dominated by defense. The teams don't even have to play each other to know that perhaps UCLA will be more entertaining.
For all their shortcomings, Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin had more sizzle at USC. Why should that matter to the Trojans? It just does. No one said fans, boosters and image makers are fair.
Trojans everywhere want to be in the playoff mix. They haven't been since losing to Texas in the 2006 BCS Championship Game.
Helton's situation at USC is not unique. It's both fascinating and difficult watching guys who are absolutely at the top of their profession lose the perception battle. In one sense, that's why these coaches are paid millions of dollars. In another sense … wow.
Kelly has the keen mind, record, offense, bravado and confidence to get it done at UCLA, a school that always seemed to not quite want it enough.
Now the school seems to be willing to try anything to be relevant. That includes paying Kelly $6 million per season. The new football facility has the space-age feel of Kelly's old Death Star at Oregon.
The Blur offense he made famous at the beginning of this decade? It's been copied, refined since he left for the NFL and may just end up being thrown back in Kelly's face down the line.
Does he care?
"We may go back to the old single wing and snap the ball directly to the tailback and have an unbalanced line and no split receivers and throw everybody for a loop," Kelly told me.
Don't laugh. Kelly just might do it.
"When I first started, there weren't many spread teams that had shiny helmets," Kelly said harkening back his Oregon heyday. "Now that I've come back, everybody's a spread team and everybody has a shiny helmet. You have to try to find a new thing."
Yup, Kelly gets it, too.
All of this masks the fact that USC is miles ahead of UCLA at the moment. The Bruins went 4-8, fired Jim Mora Jr. and now are banking on Chip 2.0.
The Trojans are the defending Pac-12 champs and chasing something bigger. It was fitting, then, that for one wistful media day, Kelly was winning those hearts, minds and Kimmel slots.
"The short time I've been in Los Angeles, there aren't many shadows because there aren't many clouds in the skies," he said. "So we're not concerned about the shadow part of this deal."
I'm not sure Chip was even talking about the climate.
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