Out of the tunnel: Lack of expectations a good thing for two teams

Expectations can be a funny thing. Sometimes, the weight of them can cause a team to play tight. Other times, the absence of them allows freedom to concentrate on what is important to the team and not to others.

Perhaps no conference in the country is a better example of this than out west in the Pac-12. USC was the overwhelming favorite (102 of 123 votes) to win the conference according to the preseason media poll, which correctly predicted the winner of the league 11 of the past 12 years. Oregon, a top five team nationally, garnered just 18 votes in the poll but was picked to win the North Division by a wide margin.

Yet heading into the Pac-12 Football Championship Game this week, we find two teams that managed just seven votes to win their division and none to win the league: UCLA and Stanford.

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The Trojans were the trendy pick to end the SEC's dominant run in the BCS championship game and take home a national title. They returned most of their starters, save for left tackle Matt Kalil, and were led by a good-natured and accurate passer in Matt Barkley. The nation's best receiving corps were complimented on the defensive side by one of the better back sevens in the region.

I went out to practice a few times, studied the depth chart and saw a number of NFL draft picks with plenty to play for this season. Their head coach had seemingly mellowed; the focus was on football. The schedule set up well. All the ingredients were in place.

However, as the season played out, those expectations gnawed at the Trojans' swagger. USC wasn't close to being the USC most thought they would be in 2012. The team wound up becoming the first team since Mississippi in 1964 to start the season No. 1 and finish it unranked.

On the flip side, Stanford and UCLA played without many expectations and even fewer people believing in them. The Bruins had a new head coach with practically zero college experience and the Cardinal were replacing their most illustrious signal-caller in a generation. The absence of pressure allowed the teams to play much looser, take more chances and bounce back quicker from adversity. They had banner years.

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Looking at the first edition of UCLA-Stanford last weekend, both teams' focus was apparent. The Cardinal could still have reached the Pac-12 Championship Game with an Oregon loss, but didn't bother checking the score. When asked about it, they simply shrugged, knowing it had nothing to do with how they played.

In the other locker room, some predicted that the Bruins would ease up on their opponent and take the loss in order to avoid a trip up to Eugene. Though it appeared the Bruins backed off the accelerator on offense late in the game, the team clearly still was trying to keep things close and execute.

“We are competitors and those guys in there don’t spend all that time preparing for a game, with the sacrifices they make, to not do their best every opportunity they get,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “They tried their best to win, it didn’t matter. We wanted to win this game today but we came up short.”

Now both teams will play each other again with a Rose Bowl berth on the line. Expectations are, by virtue of its victory in the first contest of the two-game series, that Stanford will win and head back to Pasadena to play the Big Ten champion. Coach David Shaw insinuated that his team full of smart players will understand they're in for a much tougher fight come Friday. Like they have all season, the Cardinal will be playing not for a New Year's Day bowl, but simply to win in the championship game.

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UCLA has the same goal, and won't worry about repercussions from anything other than its own play.

So in a season where expectations impacted how teams played, perhaps it's fitting that two squads that simply don't care about them will meet one more time for the Pac-12 title.

Stat pack

- A win over Nicholls State on Saturday would give Oregon State nine wins for the first time since 2008.

- The Apple Cup was the first time in 12 games Washington lost a game decided by fewer than 10 points.

- UCLA's Johnathan Franklin is just 66 yards away from breaking the school's single-season rushing record and is 18 away from breaking the all-purpose record. Teammate Brett Hundley is second on the single-season total offense list with just 137 yards to go to take over the top spot.

- Stanford won its 10th game last week, the first time in school history the Cardinal had reached that mark in three straight seasons. Amazingly, Stanford has trailed at halftime only once this year. The team set a school record for sacks in a season at 53 and counting, which is also the most in the FBS.

- Running back Stepfan Taylor is just 32 yards shy of the school rushing record. The Cardinal are 18-3 when he rushes for 100 yards or more.

- This week marks the 84th meeting between UCLA and Stanford, a series that dates back to 1925. The last Bruins win came in 2008, and the team has won as many as four road games in a season for the first time since 2002.

- UCLA has improved in 15 major statistical categories from last year to this year.

- Good note from Pac-12 Digital staffer Matthew Bowlsby: Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State were 12-0 vs. the South this season. UCLA was 1-3 vs. the North and didn't play Oregon or Washington.

Tweet of the Week

Fischer's Top 10

1. Notre Dame

2. Alabama

3. Oregon

4. Florida

5. Ohio State

6. Kansas State

7. Stanford

8. Georgia

9. Texas A&M

10. LSU

They said it

This entire exchange between Jim Mora and LA Times columnist TJ Simers after Saturday's game is… heated, to say the least.

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