Swanson: L.A. is a football town – USC, UCLA are further proving it

I don’t have to tell you that L.A. is where it’s at.

You live here. You know about the beaches and the mountains and that you don’t have to travel far to catch your favorite musical acts on tour. You know not to freak out when you spot a celebrity.

Traffic stinks, but that’s because all of us want to live here where the sun’s almost always shining, and you know it’ll be shining on the Dodgers. And that the Lakers, for better or worse, are going to be a relevant talking point.

You know this is a football town.

You do know that, don’t you?

Texas wishes it was the hotbed Southern California is at this moment. Florida dreams of so much juice. Louisiana, Ohio, and the rest of their neighbors in the south and midwest would love to claim so many current hitmakers.

Pick a level, any level, and there’s pigskin to applaud around here.

Professionally? The L.A. Rams are defending Super Bowl champions, of course.

Preps? The most highly anticipated high school football game of the year is happening Friday night in Southern California, when national No. 1 Bellflower St. John Bosco faces No. 2 Santa Ana Mater Dei.

And how about the college kids?

Give them A’s too, because for the first time since 2005, both USC and UCLA have started the season 5-0.

That was 17 seasons ago, when Matt Leinert and Reggie Bush had the Trojans’ sights set on an unprecedented third consecutive national title before they locked horns with Texas in the Rose Bowl. In what’s considered one of the greatest college games of all time, USC lost, 41-38, in a game that featured 64 NFL-bound players.

One of the Trojans’ victories that season came convincingly against UCLA; it was one of the Bruins’ few setbacks in a season when they went 10-2 and finished ranked No. 16 – after starting outside of the AP Top 25.

Not since then have both programs bobbed upward at the same time.

But here they are: USC and UCLA, ranked Nos. 6 and 18 respectively, the pair of Pac-12 short-timers emerging atop the conference standings.

The pair of Big Ten-bound L.A. schools (in 2024) are the only undefeated Pac-12 teams. Nationally, they’re also members of what’s left of the 16-team unbeaten club.

They’re also the 10th and 13th highest-scoring teams in the country, with USC putting up 42.2 points and UCLA scoring 41.4 points per game.

And don’t blink, because they’ve both got heady, highlight-makers at quarterback.

One of them threw three touchdowns and ran for a fourth in last week’s win. Of course, so did the other.

Caleb Williams is the new guy, one of 26 Trojans transfers, and the one who followed Coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma after he was hired late last year.

Under pressure from the Heisman Trophy buzz from the outset, he’s getting the job done, having thrown for 12 touchdowns and 1,402 yards with an adjusted total quarterback rating (which takes into account the strength of opposing defenses) of 85.8 which is eighth-best best in the nation. And he threw his first interception just last week, in Game 5.

The 19-year-old sophomore also has been under pressure plenty on the field, where he’s put on a tackle-evading clinic that would have made fellow escape artist Harry Houdini proud.

This escape and run from Caleb Williams

: ESPN pic.twitter.com/lsxcOYf6ar

— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) October 2, 2022

On the other side of the city, there’s the old familiar. The 22-year-old Dorian Thompson-Robinson returned for a fifth season, believing he could help breathe new life into a program that was seven games under .500 in Coach Chip Kelly’s four previous seasons.

Thompson-Robinson also has been doing his part to make defenders look silly, hurdling over them and making ’em miss. He too has been producing, with the fourth-best completion percentage (74.3) in the nation while throwing for 1,211 yards, 11 TDs and an adjusted total QB rating of 86.2, (seventh overall). Also: Just one pick.

DORIAN THOMPSON-ROBINSON WITH THE HURDLE pic.twitter.com/ER9uMwJICK

— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 1, 2022

But Thompson-Robinson didn’t come in hearing Heisman hype. Instead, as UCLA bolted to a strong start against relatively squishy nonconference competition, he saw skepticism on social media, read critiques in the press, internalized the steady rhythm of naysayers contributing to a diss track that was playing in the back of his head when he picked apart then-No. 15 Washington for win No. 5.

“If you think words don’t hurt, they do. They do. And I always remember,” Thompson-Robinson said after Friday’s statement victory, a 40-32 result that looked closer than it felt.

Coach Riley, the celebrated newcomer, made his statement at Pac-12 media day, announcing the goal without flinching: “To win the championship.”

If that seemed a bit bold for a program that hadn’t won even a Pac-12 title since 2017, it seems reasonable now.

According to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor, USC has an 18% chance of being one of the four participants in the College Football Playoff, a percentage that could keep ticking upward if the Trojans stay on track this week when Washington State visits L.A.

Kelly, California’s highest-paid public employee, didn’t set any public goals for these Bruins before the season. But if his team isn’t playing like $5.7 million yet, it’s trending in that direction, with more growth opportunities on the immediate horizon, with No. 11 Utah this week at the Rose Bowl and, after a bye, No. 12 Oregon in Eugene on Oct. 22.

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But there’s a lot going on in Southern California, you don’t have to tell me.

As USC’s crowds have started surging – their biggest so far was 67,226 fans on Sept. 18 against Fresno State, which is about 87% of capacity at the Coliseum – UCLA’s attendance has flagged.

It started with the historically low 27,143 figure reported against Bowling Green and got only incrementally better until the Bruins drew their biggest crowd on Friday, when 41,343 people were on hand.

That’s not much like a football town, which, of course, this is.

It’s a city with tons of top-tier entertainment options, including a pair of fun-to-watch college football teams that might just be going places this season – and pulling a bandwagon behind them if they do.

1-0 (x5) = pic.twitter.com/ZdOVjknL51

— USC Football (@uscfb) October 3, 2022

That 5 – 0 feeling! https://t.co/AnMGf9Mq5n pic.twitter.com/yAkHPMVVmU

— UCLA Athletics (@UCLAAthletics) October 1, 2022