Los Angeles, California: The City of Angels, the hub of the movie-making industry and the media center of the world, save for New York; the beaches, the sand, the sun and the glitz, the glamour and the gab; Hollywood, TinselTown and the place where dreams are made of.

Or, depending how things go for the Utah Utes these next 2 weeks, the place where nightmares are born.

Fresh off a month-long redemption tour — when they bounced back from a season-opening loss to Florida to smash 4 opponents in succession by the tune of a 184-43 — Utah now must reckon with its most difficult 2-week stretch in conference play. The pain starts this Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in a nationally televised matchup with UCLA at the Rose Bowl before continuing a week later back in Salt Lake City, when they’ll contend with the No. 6 USC Trojans.

It is, in no uncertain terms, a make-or-break stretch for the Utes.

The question is: Will Utah bring the pain to Los Angeles? Or will L.A. treat the Utes like so many aspiring actors and models who come seeking riches and fame, only to be chewed up and spit out?


When the season started, we figured that at least one of these matchups would be circled on Utah’s calendar.

USC went under the knife during the offseason and emerged with the most beautiful enhancements this side of Santa Monica. Caleb Williams, Jordan Addison, Travis Dye — and about a dozen other transfers who completely retooled the Trojans from a former world-beater-turned-doormat coming off a 4-8 season into a 5-0 bulldozer capable of hanging 50 on anyone.

That at least was expected.

UCLA’s complete turnaround from the early years of the Chip Kelly era has been more surprising, considering how bad the Bruins looked from 2018-2020 and how good they’ve looked last year and now this year. The Bruins’ undefeated start was considered ho-hum through 4 weeks, with wins against the likes of Bowling Green, Alabama State, South Alabama and Colorado. Then the Bruins took it to the 15th-ranked Washington Huskies at the Rose Bowl last Friday, redefining expectations and changing the narrative on the Kelly tenure.

Now, instead of being the washed-up NFL flame-out who dazzled teams with his speed and innovation a decade ago, Kelly can sell a long-term plan for UCLA, as if that was the plan all along.

And standing in both of their ways?

Defending Pac-12 champion Utah, the biggest benefactor from Los Angeles being in a state of flux.

There’s flux, and then there’s the flux capacitor, and if you take your DeLorean back to 2011, you’ll find a Pac-10 that was ready to be owned by an upstart athletic program from tiny Salt Lake City. The Utes’ tremendous stability and consistency — Kyle Whittingham has been entrenched as head coach since 2005 — has been a game-changer for the program.

Utah entered the Pac-12 a year after Pete Carroll left USC for the greener pastures of the Seattle Seahawks. The Utes, who had established a fantastic track record over the previous decade, were able to catch the Trojans in a period of massive change.

UCLA, meanwhile, was in the fading years of the Rick Neuheisel era, which followed a supremely mediocre Karl Dorrell tenure, just before the program was turned over to Jim Mora Jr.

After taking some time to get acclimated to their new surroundings, the Utes hit the gas pedal in 2014, reeling off a run that includes 6 9-win seasons in 8 years.

But if the Bruins and Trojans are back in play now, led by competent leaders and competent quarterbacks, what exactly does that mean for the Utes, who’ve grown accustomed to the top of the standings, where they’ve ended 4 of the previous 7 regular seasons.


Standing in the Utes’ way are 2 of the best quarterbacks in the country.

Whittingham said as much on Monday morning about UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who had a tremendous effort in the Bruins’ 40-32 win over Washington on Friday. Thompson-Robinson went 24-of-33 for 315 yards and 3 touchdowns, while adding 53 yards and a score on the ground.

“You can see him getting better and better,” Whittingham said. “He’s playing his best football right now, from my vantage point. Chip (Kelly) has done a great job of developing him. Not that he wasn’t good before, but he’s really taken his game to another level. Seems to be very poised. Makes plays, takes care of the ball, and he’s a dual-threat, which is the biggest issue for us is his ability to run as well as throw the football. That’s always a tough calling for your defensive coordinator and a tough situation for your defense when you’ve got a guy that can extend plays like he can.”

Kelly lauded his quarterback’s play on Monday morning, but particularly highlighted the offense’s ability to convert 3 first downs on the final drive to run out the clock.

“To pick up those 3 first downs at the end of the game was critical,” Kelly said. “We executed really well on the offensive side. There were some things we felt we could exploit with our route-running by our outside receivers, which they did.”

Utah, though, boasts one of the best cover men in the country in cornerback Clark Phillips III, who earned Walter Camp national player of the week honors after picking off 3 passes in a big win over Oregon State.

There’s a big difference between Beaver quarterbacks Chance Nolan and Ben Gulbranson and UCLA and USC quarterbacks Thompson-Robinson and Williams.

Whittingham thinks the Utes have at least adequate preparation for both multi-purpose quarterbacks, having already faced Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Arizona State’s Emory Jones, the Gators’ former starting quarterback.

“That does help. They’re similar as far as their styles of play. Arizona State’s guy was pretty athletic as well. We’ve faced some athletic quarterbacks this year. That will be good preparation. A lot of the things we learned in that game, hopefully we can apply to this game.”


That’s just this week, though.

Next week, the Utes have an even stiffer task against the 6th-ranked Trojans, who rebounded from a pedestrian 17-14 win over Oregon State in Week 4 to shine in a 42-25 win over Arizona State.

If the Utes emerge healthy from this matchup — particularly in the passing game, which has given both teams struggles this season — they stand a chance against a USC squad that might have more offensive firepower than any other team in the country. Utah will have to improve its running game to be a threat against either team, though, as the Utes’ ground game has fallen off drastically. But Cameron Rising has been sharp at quarterback for Utah, which has kept them humming for weeks now.

Before Utah can worry about USC, though, it will have to contend with a soaring UCLA squad that has won 8 straight dating to next year.

One thing is for sure: Kelly is sure worried about the Utes, winners of 5 straight against the Bruins.

“We know we beat Washington last week because of our preparation during the week; we know if we’re going to beat Utah, it’ll be because of the preparation during the week,” Kelly said. “Things just don’t happen to you. Hope isn’t a strategy.”

Especially not in Los Angeles.