UCLA football (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) is scheduled to kick off its Week 13 game against Cal (4-6, 3-4) on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The Bruins won their last game against USC in blowout fashion, and have clinched their first winning season under coach Chip Kelly and since 2015. The Golden Bears have won two of their last three games, the one loss coming when they were down 20-plus players due to COVID-19 test results, and they need to win their final two games in order to secure bowl eligibility themselves.
Heading into the Week 13 matchup, here are the most pressing questions we want to have answered by the final whistle.
Will the USC hangover continue?
It's been talked about all week, and for good reason.
The Bruins, for whatever reason, just do not play their best after taking on the Trojans. UCLA is 1-6 in its last seven Pac-12 finales that come directly after the USC game, and 0-3 under Kelly.
Those Kelly losses have been crushing nearly every time, too.
In 2018, it was a near-comeback against Stanford that fell just short. In 2019, it was a crushing loss on Senior Night at the Rose Bowl in which the offense looked worse than it had all year. In 2020, it was a blown lead and wild double-overtime defeat at the hand of the Cardinal.
UCLA is favored in this one, and for good reason. As well as Cal is playing right now, Kelly's squad still has more talent, a better offensive scheme and a good enough run defense on paper.
The problem is that going all out against the Trojans may have hurt the Bruins more than it helped them, as was the case in 2018. It isn't that winning the rivalry game hurts, since the week after hasn't gone well, win or loss.
But there's a good chance that UCLA puts so much effort and emotion into the USC game every year that they're all out of gas the following week.
Kelly needs to prove he can buck that trend this fall, or else he's missed another chance to prove growth in the program from year to year.
Can Dorian Thompson-Robinson lock up any awards?
It's been a weird season in the Pac-12, and the same can be said for the conference's quarterbacks.
So even having missed a game-plus and having some notable hiccups along the way, Dorian Thompson-Robinson could end up as the top offensive player in the Conference of Champions by year's end.
At the moment, Thompson-Robinson ranks second in the Pac-12 with a 153.5 passer rating, less than two points behind Oregon State's Chance Nolan. Thompson-Robinson has 92 more passing yards, 261 more rushing yards and eight more total touchdowns than Nolan in one fewer outing though, and he also ranks No. 1 in the conference in yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt.
Thompson-Robinson is responsible for more touchdowns than any other player in the conference, and statistically, he's been the top quarterback so far. The quarterbacks on the teams with better records than UCLA – Anthony Brown and Cameron Rising – have either been disappointments or didn't have a full season to work with.
That leaves skill position players for Thompson-Robinson to compete with. Maybe USC receiver Drake London could have been a contender before he got injured, but now it's down to running backs Rachaad White and Travis Dye from Arizona State and Oregon.
For Thompson-Robinson to set himself apart from White and Dye, and possibly Oregon State's BJ Baylor too, he's going to need to put on another signature showing. That's certainly in the cards, and he is very much one of the favorites to get named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and the All-Pac-12 First Team quarterback.
Who will win the battle on the ground?
Two of the best run offenses and two of the best run defenses in the conference will go head-to-head on Saturday, and who wins those battles could decide the outcome.
UCLA's 214.0 rushing yards per game rank No. 2 in the Pac-12. Cal's 125.4 rushing yards allowed per game rank No. 1 in the Pac-12.
The Golden Bears may rank No. 6 in rushing yards per game, but they're averaging 305 per game in their last two non-COVID-hampered outings. The Bruins have the No. 3 run defense in the conference, but that ranking does move down to No. 5 for yards per carry.
An improving Cal run game will be facing off against a deteriorating UCLA run defense, and that could spell disaster for a defense that has also struggled mightily to stop the pass. Dealing with a dual-threat quarterback like Chase Garbers is nothing new for the Bruins, but his veteran experience and high IQ could make it even more difficult to keep him bottled up behind the line of scrimmage.
In addition to the quarterback, the two-man running back combo of Damien Moore and Christopher Brooks is just getting better as the season continues.
On the other side of the ball, running back Zach Charbonnet could be without his own backfield mate, with Brittain Brown's status still up in the air after leaving the Colorado game early and missing the whole USC game. Charbonnet proved he can shoulder the full load, racking up 173 yards on 29 touches against USC in Week 12.
Charbonnet and Thompson-Robinson going against Garbers, Moore and Brooks is going to be an entertaining back-and-forth no matter what the end result turns out to be.
Is this it for Chip Kelly?
To be frank, the answer to this question is almost certainly no.
Beating USC in dominant fashion and clinching a winning season and bowl berth helped Kelly's case, and he's very likely going to be offered an extension in the coming weeks. Even if he loses to Cal on Saturday, that will really only ding his negotiating power more so than his job security.
But just because Kelly has saved himself from getting fired for the time being doesn't mean he's locked into coming back to Westwood next season.
For one, defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro's employment may be something UCLA wants to make part of any extension talks, as in they know he really can't be coming back. Maybe that ends in Azzinaro retiring, or maybe Kelly sees that forced breakup as a deal-breaker.
The same goes for any financial aspects of the extension UCLA ends up offering. The assumption is that Kelly's next deal with the Bruins would be more team-friendly than his current one, which has a $9 million buyout and essentially backs the school into a corner with his weird January buyout clause.
If Kelly doesn't want to accept terms that won't be as heavily in his favor, maybe he retires, maybe he leaves for an NFL job or maybe he goes up and fills the Washington vacancy.
Just because Kelly is moderately safe from being axed doesn't mean he's locked into returning next year, and Saturday's result could play a part in what happens next.