SHANE LEE WAS CONFUSED. The USC linebacker walked out of Monday morning meetings this week and saw the Trojan statue near the center of campus covered in shimmering silver tape pulled taut. Lee, who transferred to USC this offseason from Alabama, had to turn to backup quarterback Miller Moss for clarification.
“I thought UCLA did it or something,” Lee said. “They told me it’s just for protection.”
Lee knows about Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner, the Iron Bowl and what SEC disdain for another team looks like. But the mild-mannered linebacker is new to the Pac-12’s marquee rivalry. He’s not the only one. With a brand new head coach in Lincoln Riley, a new coaching staff and more than 40 transfer players, the usual disdain between the two teams has felt tempered this week.
“We’re not doing anything honestly too specific with this rivalry and not to discount it in any way,” Riley said. “We’ve acknowledged that it is a rivalry game. There’s a lot of history behind it. It’s going to be a great game to play in. But past that, I think we’re really zeroed in on what we believe is going to help us play well, and that’s where our focus is going to be.”
USC’s approach to the game has been largely a matter of fact. To hear players — mainstays who have been there for five seasons to those who are brand new — talk about it, there is excitement, but nothing close to determined disdain for UCLA.
West of downtown Los Angeles, there was at least one player who wasn’t shy away from providing any bulletin board material. Over five years in Westwood, Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s filter has only dissipated as his confidence has risen. When it comes to USC, he’s long past the point of holding back.
“Obviously we hate those guys across town,” Thompson-Robinson said on Monday. “There’s definitely a bitter feeling towards those guys.”
Institutional antagonism has found its way deep into Thompson-Robinson’s vocabulary because, unlike most USC players, he’s revved up for this game five times and, after Saturday, played in it four times. But if getting into a war of words was the goal, USC players did not engage.
“Even all the guys that’ve been here and the new guys that came in, we’re all treating it pretty much the same,” Lee said. “It’s just another game, a game that’s on our list that we have to go out there and take care of business.”
That perspective underlines what a unique year this is for the rivalry. For the first time since Pete Carroll left for the NFL, USC is being led by a coach with no roots in the program and a roster full of players who have come to spend one season, maybe two, at the school. It’s not just the Trojans.
“I don’t think anybody — the fan bases might have something to say about this — but I don’t think anybody on the team really hates anybody on the other team,” said UCLA wide receiver Jake Bobo, who transferred from Duke. “So at the end of the day, it’s just a big game, we need a win right now, they obviously need a win as well, so I’m excited.”
Stakes — not animosity — might be what gives this sold-out game at the Rose Bowl the biggest boost. Even after Arizona beat UCLA last week, preventing the game from likely being the first top-10 matchup between the teams since 1988, there’s plenty to play for. Both programs need a win to keep their seasons alive. In the case of the Bruins, a win still gives them a shot at making the Pac-12 title game and their first Rose Bowl since 1999. A loss eliminates them. For the Trojans, a win would punch their ticket to that title game and keep their playoff hopes alive as a one-loss team.
This season, the rivalry and the regional bragging rights seem secondary to the fact that there are bigger things to look to, in the present and the near future, especially as both teams get closer to their eventual, controversial departure to the Big Ten in 2024 .
“When both teams are good and there are a lot of opportunities ahead for both teams,” Riley said this week of rivalry games, “it makes it way, way better.”
JUST A FEW years ago, in the days of Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton, there was a USC player or two who would keep an eye on the sidelines of the Trojans’ practices at Howard Jones Field in search of any shade of blue during UCLA week. Media, staffers and any others who were in attendance were called out for wearing the color of the team across town, even if sometimes, it wasn’t quite the shade of the team across town. It didn’t matter. The blue was not to be seen.
The Riley regime has been different in many ways, and this week featured none of that. While the sidelines of that same practice field featured USC players being asked plenty of questions about their feelings toward the game, and the Bruins at large, the message they voiced sounded like that of a choir who had all perfectly hit the same note.
“I haven’t learned much about the rivalry to be honest,” said quarterback Caleb Williams. “It’s just another game to me.”
“It’s just any other game really,” said running back Austin Jones. “At the end of the day we got to go out there and play our brand of ball.”
“We’re just taking it week by week, trying to be the most successful team we can be,” senior offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees said when asked if, having had experience with the rivalry, he has tried to amp up the energy in practice this week. “I mean, we heard the Rose Bowl is sold out so, we’ll see what that’s like.”
“You gotta make sure that winning football is winning football regardless of what the logos on our helmets are,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said.
Grinch had to even catch himself when complimenting Chip Kelly, with whom he worked at New Hampshire as a cornerbacks coach when Kelly was the head coach.
“I got a lot of respect for Chip,” Grinch said. “I call him a friend and I’ve been a fan for — I can’t be a fan anymore, it’s the way it goes — but I am, I have been for a long time.”
In recent years, the game has been less about two great teams facing off and more about the built-in hostility between the programs. Last year, Thompson-Robinson ran roughshod over a USC team that was in shambles and went 4-8. This week, he said he wanted to score 60 points on the Trojans, who he recalled “cussing us out and flipping us off” in the 2020 version of the game at the Rose Bowl.
“As disrespectful as you can get,” Thompson-Robinson said. “So we’ve got to go out there on Saturday and do the best we can to win this game, so we know what’s at stake and we know what it means to our fans and this community, we’ve got to go out there and win this game.”
In some ways, Thompson-Robinson is a dying breed. Not only is his case unique — usually, players face their rivals for only four seasons and he was awarded an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic — but with the advent of the transfer portal and USC and UCLA’s looming exodus to the Big Ten, this rivalry is about to, at the very least, evolve, if not have fewer and fewer players and figures who feel the need to lean into the matchup. As long as talent enters the portal, transfers will keep making their way to Southern California, and in a new conference, bigger games against the Ohio States and Michigans of the world might become more important in the race to what is likely an expanded playoff.
The irony of an outgoing Thompson-Robinson expressing his hatred for USC is that the two programs find themselves closer than ever thanks to not just the rankings, but that contentious, impending defection from the conference they sit at the top of this season. Just as Riley seems to have USC heading back to the top of the sport and Kelly is finding his stride in Westwood, the two teams not only seem to be playing their best ball in some time, they’re also finding themselves united in an ongoing evolution to upend the sport.
FROM PARKING LOT tailgates in Eugene where fans curse the USC and UCLA names when discussing the move to the Big Ten (only to wonder in the next breath if they’re next), to new commissioner George Kliavkoff understandably maligning the departure at every turn as he tries to secure a new media rights deal and replace the two outgoing schools, the spectrum of emotions that have been born out of the LA schools’ move East has made this season in the Pac-12 a fascinating one. The fuel to that fire is that, from a football standpoint, it has been a stellar year for the conference and a stellar season for its two departing members. Case in point: Six Pac-12 teams are ranked in the latest version of the College Football Playoff poll, the most of any conference.
In many ways, this season from USC and UCLA is exactly what the conference has been missing the past few years and part of the reason it has failed to compete with the SEC, Big Ten and even the Big 12. In other ways, this season from the Bruins and Trojans could be seen as proof that their transition to the Big Ten is forward thinking and necessary (see: the 10:30 pm ET kickoffs and the three required appearances on the Pac-12 Network). Or in the case of the Bruins, financially essential. Pac-12 After Dark is fun and all, but so is playing in prime time and a $7 billion media deal.
The kicker is that this move is not quite a done deal. While both USC and UCLA have routinely refused to talk about an exodus that’s still two years away, the University of California Board of Regents has been put in a position to decide the fate of UCLA, which, unlike USC, is a public institution that’s part of the UC system. At first, UCLA appeared to have made the move without any issues and unspoken approval from the regents. But as more discussion was brought forth about how the move could damage UCLA’s sister school, Cal, the board of regents has reaffirmed its power to hold UCLA back if it so chooses.
On Thursday, the regents could have voted on the move, but instead they announced a Dec. 14 sessions would be held to either approve or rescind the decision on UCLA’s Big Ten membership. In other words, there is still a world in which the regents decided to outright block the Bruins’ move and the USC-UCLA rivalry is, at the very least, paused, if not permanently put on hold after next season.
Even if the UCLA-USC rivalry does not go away, it is certainly evolving. And that, at least, serves to make Saturday’s game feel more like the one Thompson-Robinson is hyping up than the one USC players are trying to downplay as just another game.
Yet for all the rather tepid energy surrounding this game from a rivalry standpoint, coaches and players acknowledged that once Saturday comes, the emotions will be high and USC will care about beating UCLA in the same way UCLA will care about beating USC.
“A lot of emotion and intensity and excitement in these games and that’s what makes them fun, right?,” Riley said. “Sometimes in the heat of the battle you have to really balance it, but you also have to have the intensity, too. You can’t do it without that.”
As part of the regents’ agenda update this week, a report and survey of athletes commissioned by UCLA and the UC Office of the President was included that shed some light on one thing. Athletes at UCLA were asked what they thought the benefits were to making the move to the Big Ten. Of the 20% of athletes who participated, only 28% mentioned maintaining rivalry with USC as one of the benefits. And yet, as the report points out, prompted by a separate question, 93% of respondents said it was important or very important to have USC and UCLA in the same conference, while only 24% said it was important for Cal and UCLA in the same conference.
Even if this year’s game carries high stakes but low hostility, it seems at least some athletes still care about being in the same conference as their main rival. And if the past two years of realignment in college football have taught us anything, it’s that keeping your friends close but your enemies closer seems to pay off.