How the transfer portal is shaping the USC vs. UCLA rivalry

His UCLA colleague might have no trouble channeling the bitter feelings of a century after four cross-country confrontations, but don’t count on Caleb Williams to conjure up the same sentiments ahead of his rivalry debut

When asked how much he’s been absorbed by the iconic rivalry this week, the USC star quarterback shrugged.

“To be honest, I didn’t learn much,” Williams said. “I’ve been in other big rivalry games in my career so far. So treat it like another game.”

Of course, Dorian Thompson-Robinson sees it differently, her approaches as contrasting as the cardinal and blue of the home shirts that each team will wear on Saturday.

“Obviously we hate these guys all over town,” the UCLA fifth-grader said Monday.

Though that bitterness is now built in for Thompson-Robinson, he’s among the few key figures on either side of this year’s rivalry game with experience ringing the victory bell.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson passes in a win over Utah on Oct. 8.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson passes in a win over Utah on Oct. 8.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Williams, who briefly considered becoming a bruin last January, was one of 26 transfers inked by new USC coach Lincoln Riley during the offseason, a group that also includes USC’s top two rushers, three of the four top receivers and three of the top four leaders include tacklers in defense. UCLA and coach Chip Kelly found their leading receiver and three top pass rushers along with a dozen other players during the most recent transfer window. Last year he picked up Zach Charbonnet, the Pac-12’s top running back.

Of the 44 projected offensive and defensive starters for Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl, 23 were plucked from the portal at one point. Taken together, there may not be two college football contenders who have been more transformed by the NCAA transfer portal than USC and UCLA.

As a result, the proverbial bulletin board stuff might arrive a little differently this week. But it’s not as if this year’s gathering requires additional outreach to USC or UCLA. The Trojans No. 7 are still on the verge of talks about the college football playoffs and a win over UCLA before securing a spot in the Pac-12 title game. The No. 16 Bruins also have hopes of capturing their first conference crown since 1998 but need to win and hope for a loss in Washington in the Huskies’ last two games.

That should be enough to get the blood pumping on Saturday.

“If you’re not ready for this game,” USC center Brett Neilon said, “there’s something wrong with you.”

When Riley and Kelly set out to raid the transfer portal and rebuild their respective teams in the offseason, neither thought of the sanctity of the crosstown rivalry.

For Riley, the portal would be an essential tool in shaping the Trojans’ sudden turn from a 4-8 nightmare to a 9-1 contender. It provided a lifeline for Kelly when the coach’s future with the Bruins looked bleak. Now everyone finds their teams competing for a conference title, largely due to posts added through the portal. And both have indicated they will continue mining in the coming months and years.

How an annual parade of transfers could change the dynamic of the crosstown rivalry remains to be seen. Kelly, for the record, doesn’t see much of a difference.

“There’s still a lot of Southern California kids playing at that football game,” the UCLA coach said, “so probably more than anyone else we know, so let’s talk about that roughly.”

Riley, like his quarterback, wasn’t one to step up rivalry talk or tradition this week. Instead, most USC players have said they treat the game like any other.

“We’re not doing anything too concrete with this rivalry,” Riley said. “Not to neglect it in any way. We realized that this game will feel different in some ways. We recognized that this is a rivalry game with a lot of history behind it. It’s going to be a great game to play in. But beyond that, we focus on what we think will help us play well. That will be our focus.”

Still, some transfers have tried to get into the spirit of the rivalry.

For Jake Bobo, UCLA’s lead receiver this season, Saturday should be an easy transition from his time at Duke, where the Blue Devils play their rival North Carolina for a victory bell every year.

UCLA wide receiver Jake Bobo stretches to make a catch against Arizona on Nov. 12.

UCLA wide receiver Jake Bobo stretches to make a catch against Arizona on Nov. 12.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

He’s already called the USC-UCLA version — and already seems to be realizing his feelings for the Bruins’ bitter rival.

“I generally despise SC just because I’ve been here for a few months, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do, you know?” said Bobo.

His counterpart at USC can relate. Jordan Addison, who moved from Pittsburgh during the offseason, said he felt a different kind of energy in the building this week.

“Definitely something I thought about coming to a new city,” said Addison, who leads USC in catches (40), yards (587) and touchdowns (seven). “I know it’s a big game for this city. A few people in the room were talking about it, so I’m starting to get a feel for it.”

Hearing Thompson-Robinson’s comments about how UCLA plans to “break 60 points” against USC helped bring those feelings to the surface.

“Who wouldn’t want to charge us 60? We are USC,” Addison said.

The receiver wasn’t there when the Bruins broke 60 in a 62-33 breakaway win over USC a season ago. But that didn’t stop him from refuting his rival’s comments.

“You have to stand behind it,” Addison said. “He’ll have to stand on those words.” How the transfer portal is shaping the USC vs. UCLA rivalry

Emma Bowman

Emma Bowman is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Emma Bowman joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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