No disrespect to Wisconsin-Michigan State, Standford-Washington, or LSU-Auburn, but this week's national game of the week takes place in South Bend, Indiana, between two unranked teams. That's where Notre Dame (4-2) hosts USC (5-1) in a rivalry that may have a changing tide. The two squads will play Saturday at 6:30 C.T. for the Jeweled Shillelagh trophy.
Despite owning an all-time series record of 43-33-5, Notre Dame lost a painful eight in a row to the Trojans between 2002 and 2009. With two exceptions, those games weren't even competitive. For those who are counting, former Notre Dame coaches Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis went a combined 0-8 against USC.
But there is a renewed hope--albeit a hesitant one--in South Bend. Head Coach Brian Kelly is a proven winner and relies more on toughness than gimmick. His recruiting efforts so far have prioritized defense, which is a night-and-day difference from the Weis regime. In Kelly's first season, the Irish won their last four--beating Utah, Army, USC, and Miami--en route to an 8-5 record. But for all the high expectations that this season started with, Notre Dame laid an egg in their first two games, losing to South Florida, 23-20, and Michigan, 35-31. The Michigan game included an epic fourth quarter quarter collapse in which the Irish gave up 28 fourth quarter points. But lest Irish critics claim "same ol same ol" too loudly, Notre Dame has rattled off four straight wins, including a convincing win over a very good Michigan State team that beat Michigan last weekend.
Things have also changed at USC, and some would argue not for the better. Former coach Pete Carroll (8-1 record against Notre Dame) is gone and has left behind a series of violations, which has and will continue to haunt the new regime. That regime is led by Lane Kiffin, whose bite has outweighed his bark so far as a head coach, both in the NFL and in the college ranks.
This is not to say the Trojans do not have a good football team. They are currently 5-1 against a BCS-only schedule. Their only loss came at Arizona State.
The Trojans are led by the combination of quarterback Matt Barkley and receiver Robert Woods. The duo has combined for 60 completions, 783 yards, and six touchdowns. Notre Dame's pass defense has been adequate, but not great, and will likely depend on a hefty pass rush that is boosted by the play of two freshmen defensive linemen: Aaron Lynch and Stephen Tuitt. Irish middle linebacking star Manti T'eo and others will do their part to shut down the run, so don't be surprised if USC looks very one-dimensional in this game.
On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees has shown glimpses of greatness and plenty of mistake-prone youth. He will need to keep the turnovers down if the Irish are to beat USC for the second straight season. He has plenty of weapons to distribute the ball to, starting with receiver Michael Floyd, who has 53 catches and 4 touchdowns. Athletic and sure-handed tight end Tyler Eifert has also been steady with 32 receptions and 3 touchdowns. Irish running backs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray boast scary averages of 5.8 and 8.4 yards per carry, respectively.
In some ways, this games looks like the exact opposite of games during the Weis years. One team (USC this time) with a team led by an extremely talented quarterback-receiver duo, but not a ton of help around them. The other team (Notre Dame) that boasts a bunch of future pros and stacks of depth at most positions. It also does not help USC's cause that Notre Dame is playing at home after an extra week to prepare.
Prediction: Notre Dame 34, USC 17