The Pac-12 Conference's first championship game caps an eventful week in the league — so eventful that the game itself between No. 8 Oregon and UCLA seems a bit anticlimactic.
The Ducks are so heavily favored that the attention Friday night may not be on Autzen Stadium's field, but on the sidelines, where Rick Neuheisel will oversee his final game as the Bruins' head coach.
Neuheisel was fired following last weekend's 50-0 loss to No. 9 Southern California. It was part of a wave of coaching moves in the conference. Around the time Neuheisel's dismissal was announced, Arizona State let go of Dennis Erickson.
Then Washington State parted ways with Paul Wulff, and the Cougars quickly hired former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach a day later.
Neuheisel said he doesn't want the Bruins' appearance in the title game to turn into a "Win One For Rick" crusade.
"That sounds like a bad B movie. It need not be about me. It's always been about us," he said. "It's always been about the mission and the passion that a team, if you're really engaged with a team, can bring about. I'm just excited to be on the team for one more try."
For their last practice before departing for Eugene, the Bruins carried Neuheisel off Spaulding Field. Then the coach teared up while speaking to reporters.
"It's meaningful when you work to create relationships, and you want desperately for them to achieve what they're capable of," he said. "Despite the fact that we didn't win enough games, I think they are achieving as people. I'm extremely proud to be a part of this team, and looking forward to — hopefully — a grand finish."
The reality is that UCLA (6-6, 5-4) faces a major challenge in the Ducks (10-2, 8-1).
"I believe our plan is a good one. Now the devil will be in the details, making sure we do all the little things right, because that's what it's going to take to beat a team as accomplished as Oregon," Neuheisel said. I know there's no such thing as a perfect game, but we're going to have to get darn close, and that's an exciting challenge, especially given the stakes."
The Ducks are playing for their third straight conference championship and a spot in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2. Oregon appeared to be in the running for a shot at a spot in the BCS championship game for the second straight season, but the Ducks also fell victim to USC with a 38-35 loss at Autzen on Nov. 19.
The Ducks were trying hard this week not to overlook the Bruins on the road to Pasadena.
"Not at all because we're not in the Rose Bowl yet," quarterback Darron Thomas said. "We got a big game this week and if we go off looking to the Rose Bowl we might not make it there."
Thomas anchors an offense that is putting up big numbers again this season. The Ducks are averaging 510.58 yards in total offense a game, sixth in the nation. They are fifth in rushing offense with an average of 291 yards, and third in scoring with an average of 45.9 points per game.
Thomas himself has 27 touchdown passes with just five interceptions this season. The junior is just two TDs short of Danny O'Neil's career record of 62 with the Ducks from 1991-94.
Running back LaMichael James is the nation's top running back with an average of 142.7 yards a game. A Heisman Trophy finalist last season as a sophomore, James fell out of the running for the most part this season because he missed two games with a dislocated right elbow.
The Bruins, ranked 84th in the nation among FBS teams in total defense, are ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing 178 yards per game.
The Bruins have proven this season that they've been able to rebound after big losses, recording wins in each game after falling to Stanford, Arizona and Utah. But they're not taking any solace in that stat.
"Obviously we know the pattern the season has gone by. We know that when we've had losses, and bad losses, we've been able to bounce back strong," quarterback Kevin Prince said. "We're also aware that Oregon is a good opponent, and it's not going to be easy. Just because we've done it in the past doesn't mean we're going to be able to do it again."
Oregon is favored by 31 points in the game, which appears to be impacting interest among fans. Tickets listed on StubHub! were being offered for below market value this week.
The addition of Colorado and Utah to the Pac-12 paved the way for a league championship game this season. In previous years, the team with the best conference record claimed the title.
While USC (10-2, 7-2) finished atop the Pac-12 South, the Trojans are ineligible to play in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, which paved the way for UCLA to play in the title game.
"It's a little weird," Prince said. "Obviously things didn't go the way we wanted. We would have preferred to make the championship game by winning it outright, but the situation has presented itself where we can do what we set out to do, which is win a Pac-12 championship."Comment on this story
This week, the NCAA ruled that the Bruins can accept a bowl invitation even if they lose on Friday. Because of Neuheisel's dismissal, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will take over if UCLA is selected.
The Bruins have reached just one bowl game in the past three seasons. Athletic director Dan Guerrero said he wants to reward the Bruins' 18 seniors by going to a bowl even while the program is in upheaval.
What remains to be seen is how the Bruins themselves will respond against the Ducks at Autzen.
"If they want to go a different route, that's fine, but he's my coach," UCLA running back Derrick Coleman said. "He's been through a lot. He's taught me a lot while I was here, and we want to make sure we go out there and play hard for him one more time."