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College football roundtable: Which team is more impressive — UCLA or USC?

No. 11 UCLA and No. 7 USC are undefeated and have established themselves as Pac-12 Conference title contenders.

Los Angeles Times college football writers Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen answer key questions about the teams.

Which is the more impressive 6-0 team?

Bolch: There are no more ties in college football, but this might qualify. Each team nearly stumbled — UCLA should send South Alabama coach Kane Wommack a thank-you card for that silly fake field-goal attempt — but the Bruins notched the two best victories with their triumphs over Washington and Utah. Both have entertaining offenses and defenses that get the job done. There’s not much separating these teams in terms of quality; it’s pretty much a push.

Kartje: The margin between these two rivals through six weeks feels razor thin. UCLA boasts the best marquee victory after last week’s win over Utah, but the reality is without that botched fake field-goal attempt, we’re not even having this conversation. USC came dangerously close to stumbling in Corvallis, but that near-loss was at least on the road against a feisty conference opponent. In its other five games, USC has won by an average of 25 points. We’ve yet to see a complete, four-quarter performance from Lincoln Riley’s Trojans. USC is still very much learning how to win, and while UCLA may be nearing its ceiling, its crosstown rival doesn’t feel close to that point just yet. We’ll have a much better idea of what USC is capable of at this point next week.

McCollough: UCLA has the best win by far (Utah). But the Bruins also have the worst performance (South Alabama, which we know could have been a loss to a Sun Belt team). UCLA has only played one road game, which was against a terrible Colorado squad that was about to fire its coach. It’s very hard to choose, but I’ll give the edge to UCLA by a very slim margin. We’ll know a lot more about both teams in the next two weeks when USC plays at Utah and UCLA plays at Oregon.

Nguyen: While UCLA is a bad coaching decision away from being 5-1, the Bruins have the stronger wins. Not only did they beat Washington and Utah, but they did so convincingly despite the relatively close final scores. The Trojans probably leave a better impression because they’re the new (kind of old) fun thing in town with a new coach and quarterback blowing every team out except for Oregon State, but UCLA has quietly taken care of business in a way that fits Chip Kelly’s no-frills personality.

Which quarterback has been playing better — Dorian Thompson-Robinson or Caleb Williams?

McCollough: Bill Plaschke nailed it with his column Saturday. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has had the better season thus far. That doesn’t mean he’s a better quarterback than Caleb Williams, though. DTR has the advantage of this being his fifth year at UCLA running this system, but he also doesn’t have the playmakers on the outside that Williams has in Jordan Addison and Mario Williams. Just like above with the teams, it’s close, but a slight edge to DTR. A lot can change by season’s end.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson eludes Utah cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Bolch: Thompson-Robinson called it early in his college career when he came up with the branding campaign “Don’t be a fan later.” The message: If you’re not on board now, don’t bother jumping on the bandwagon when the big successes arrive. That time has come, and the bandwagon is overflowing. Just as impressive as his recent big-game performances has been a fiery demeanor that reflects his intention to do more than start 6-0. If Thompson-Robinson has his way, the best college quarterback in L.A. is just getting started.

Nguyen: I remember hearing on a TV broadcast earlier this year that the returning senior quarterback is not always a popular figure among fans because if he comes back, it usually means he’s not good enough to go to the NFL. Dorian Thompson-Robinson has proven that theory wrong. He’s taken a massive jump in every statistical category and leads the Pac-12 in passing efficiency at 180.6. The next closest quarterback is Utah’s Cameron Rising at 161.3. Because Thompson-Robinson didn’t play the position in high school — famously waiting behind Tate Martell at Bishop Gorman — it’s natural that he needed extra time to fully realize the potential everyone at UCLA saw.

Kartje: It’s hard to argue with what Dorian Thompson-Robinson has done so far this season. There’s not a quarterback in all of college football who can match the heart he’s shown while at the helm for UCLA — especially over the past two weeks. If we’re judging this race by what we’ve seen in recent weeks — and by his 75% completion rate — DTR has probably been the Pac-12’s top passer too. But I’m confident we’ll all be singing a different tune by the end of this season. We’ve seen only flashes of what Caleb Williams is capable of through these first six weeks, and while Thompson-Robinson has years of experience in Chip Kelly’s offense, Williams is still finding his foothold in Riley’s. A major test of that progress awaits this week.

If you had to pick a Pac-12 coach of the year now, would you go with Chip Kelly or Lincoln Riley?

Bolch: I’d have to go with Riley just based on the fact that he has engineered this stunning turnaround in months, not years. Kelly’s bamboo has fully sprouted, but it took him five seasons to reach the heights most UCLA fans were expecting by Year 2 or 3. Kelly’s candidacy will be hard to top, though, if he can get the Bruins to beat Oregon and the Trojans. That would likely generate serious College Football Playoff consideration for UCLA (assuming no other stumbles), and how crazy is that given that some people (cough, cough) were calling for Kelly’s dismissal as recently as a year ago?

Kartje: What Kelly has done in climbing back from the hot seat to the edge of the College Football Playoff conversation is certainly commendable, but come on. This is a no-brainer. USC was at rock bottom when Riley arrived last November. He completely remade the roster with 26 transfers and rebuilt a culture that had come completely unraveled. And now USC has its first 6-0 start since 2006, when Pete Carroll still roamed the Coliseum sideline. Good luck finding any coach in college football who can match what Riley has accomplished so far in his first season.

McCollough: Riley. From 4-8 to 6-0. Enough said.

Nguyen: I agree with Ben that the slow build of Kelly’s program isn’t going to impress many voters, so Riley likely has the edge right now. If both teams continue on this trajectory, the rivalry game could decide College Football Playoff hopes and, as a side note, the conference coach of the year.

What has surprised you the most about USC?

Kartje: We all knew USC’s offense would put up points. All the most pressing concerns came on the other end, many of which seemed to be confirmed over the first few weeks of the season. The depth was thin. The pass rush was paltry. The interior was weak. But after an uneasy start to the season, the defense seems to have finally found its footing. Not only is USC leading all of college football in interceptions (12), it also leads in sacks, which would’ve been unthinkable before the season when it barely had enough edge rushers to get through the spring. It once seemed USC’s defense would be what kept it out of the Playoff conversation. But Alex Grinch has USC’s defense rounding into form, and that no longer seems to be the case.

McCollough: The Trojans’ weakness was supposed to be up front on both sides of the ball, but that hasn’t been the case at all. Sure, USC’s run defense isn’t good, but the defensive line has made up for it by leading the country (!!) in sacks through six games. Offensively, the Trojans have mostly protected Williams and they’ve shown they can ride the run game to salt away a victory like they did Saturday against Washington State. USC may not be deep in the trenches, but it is tough.

Bolch: For me, the biggest shocker was that this reformulated-on-the-fly team showed the fortitude to win such a losable game in Corvallis, a place where more veteran USC teams have stumbled in the past. That proved what kind of character these Trojans possess.

USC defensive lineman Brandon Pili reacts after sacking Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward

USC defensive lineman Brandon Pili (91) reacts after Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward (1) was brought down Saturday at the Coliseum.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Nguyen: While USC has “mostly protected” Williams, like Brady said, I think that’s mainly a product of Williams saving himself. I’ve been surprised that the offensive line, the most experienced unit on USC’s team, hasn’t been able to hold up better in pass protection. Every other group was completely redone with transfers, but four of the five starting offensive linemen were returners from last year. The fifth spot rotates between Courtland Ford, another returner, and Bobby Haskins, a transfer from Virginia. I love watching Williams’ individual heroics, but it’s not necessarily a welcome sight for USC fans who worry about their quarterback.

What has surprised you the most about UCLA this season?

Bolch: An offensive line that lost three starters, including both tackles, has proven to be much better than expected thanks to the arrival of transfer tackle Raiqwon O’Neal, the rise of tackle Garrett DiGiorgio and the body transformation of guard Atonio Mafi. That trio, alongside center Duke Clemens and guard Jon Gaines II, has more than adequately protected Thompson-Robinson while opening huge holes for running back Zach Charbonnet. What’s even more impressive — and frightening for the rest of the Pac-12 — is that the line has gotten better every game.

McCollough: I was really worried that DTR wasn’t going to have enough playmakers on the outside this year, but that has not been the case at all. He’s spreading it around to a bunch of different guys, and Jake Bobo’s emergence as a lead threat has quelled those concerns.

Nguyen: UCLA fans have waited for a defense worthy of Chip Kelly’s offense, and it looks like they finally have one under defensive coordinator Bill McGovern. The Bruins lead the conference in yards allowed per rush (3.05) and yards allowed per play (4.88). Kelly has never disappointed on offense in Westwood, turning former walk-ons and afterthoughts into NFL draft picks, so UCLA’s hopes always rested with defense.

Kartje: It’s not a stretch to say that UCLA’s defense is the best in the Pac-12, which is truly stunning considering where the Bruins stood with Jerry Azzinaro as coordinator.

Which team has the toughest road to complete an undefeated season?

McCollough: USC. The Trojans have to play two ranked road games at Utah and UCLA and have to finish with a resurgent Notre Dame squad that would love nothing more than to ruin USC’s hopes of a playoff berth at the Coliseum.

Nguyen: If UCLA can get past Oregon in two weeks — no easy task, especially with UCLA’s lack of road tests this season — then the Bruins should be home free outside of the rivalry game. USC has a tough end to the year with UCLA and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks.

Bolch: It’s pretty much a push given that each team’s next game — USC traveling to face Utah, UCLA playing at Oregon — is its last huge remaining hurdle before the rivalry game. There could always be a surprise test, of course, but there’s a good chance both of these teams will be unbeaten when they meet Nov. 19 at the Rose Bowl. If that’s the case, those end zone tarps are coming off and there could be a record crowd.

Kartje: Both face one of their toughest remaining tests the next time they take the field. But UCLA gets a week to rest up before heading to Oregon. USC doesn’t have the same luxury. The Trojans must travel to Salt Lake City this week to face an angry Utah team seeking to redeem its loss to the Bruins. They’ll have to make the trip across town to meet UCLA and hope their fans fill the Rose Bowl’s newly un-tarped bleachers with cardinal and gold. With Notre Dame finally rounding into form, USC’s season finale won’t be a walk in the park either. The moral of the story? It’s really hard to go undefeated.

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