Notre Dame will travel to southern California to take on USC this Saturday in their final regular season game. The Fighting Irish will make a statement for all to see on prime time against the Trojans: that they are the best team in college football.
I know those sound like famous last words, but Notre Dame has been facing detractors and doubters all season. You could probably count on one hand the number of non-Irish fans who expected Notre Dame to be in this position—sitting at the top of the BCS standings, undefeated, and poised to challenge for a national championship.
Head coach Brian Kelly has done a great job of bringing Notre Dame back to top standing in college football after Charlie Weiss's tremendous failure as the Irish head coach. Now, with the opportunity to clinch their spot in the BCS Championship Game, Kelly's Irish will show everyone just how far they've come with an emphatic win.
And what better team to do this against than the Trojans?
For Notre Dame, it all starts with the defense. The age-old adage is that defense wins championships. Yes, in the end you have to score points, but most championship teams are only as strong as their defenses.
If that is truly the case, then the Irish look to be in great position. Notre Dame's defense this season has been the key to their success. They are tied with Alabama for the fewest points allowed and are sixth overall in the nation in yards per game allowed.
Say what you will about competition, but those are strong numbers for any team.
Skepticism in Notre Dame's defense is warranted, though, as USC's offense has been mostly executed through their passing game. Matt Barkley has been good for USC under center this season, and has led the Trojan's 20th-ranked passing offense while leading the nation in touchdowns thrown.
However, Barkley will not be playing against Notre Dame after USC coach Lane Kiffin ruled him out of the game. Freshman Max Wittek will get his first start as he tries to keep the Irish out of the BCS Title Game.
All of a sudden, the fact that the Irish's pass defense has been mediocre seems to matter a bit less now.
Sure, Wittek could come out, guns blazing, and continue the success Barkley has had with scoring, but how likely is that? Do you really expect a rookie quarterback playing against his team's biggest rival for all to see on national television to be perfect?
No, and that's an unfair burden to put on him.
This bodes well for Notre Dame's defense. The trio of Prince Shembo, Stephon Tuitt, and Manti Te'o will give Wittek all kinds of trouble in his first-ever start. Shembo and Tuitt have combined for 18 sacks this season, while Te'o has been the Irish's most consistent defender. Te'o has led the country in tackles the past two seasons and sits second overall so far this season. He also leads the interceptions category with six.
Wittek's poise in the pocket will be his success or undoing as he faces the daunting task of confronting the pressure from those three in his first start.
While it may arguably be the most important aspect of the game, defense is not all that counts. Notre Dame's offense will need to get it done against the Trojan's formidable defense. Their biggest strength is their ability to defend the pass and come up with interceptions.
This will work somewhat in favor of the Irish, though, as their passing game is definitely not a strong suit. Ranking 80th overall, it's likely that Notre Dame will look elsewhere for their offense.
USC's rushing defense is not as strong as their passing defense and the Irish will try to expose that. Senior running back Cierre Wood will probably see a lot of action in the backfield. Hoping to build off his strong performance against Wake Forest, he will look to stick it to the Trojans one last time in his final regular season game.
At the end of the day, games between Notre Dame and USC are always hotly contested, given their strong rivalry with each other. The Irish, though, are looking to make a statement against the Trojans.
If previous games are any indication, the stats are in Notre Dame's favor. Their stingy defense, again with the least amount of points allowed, will keep the Trojan's scoring down. The Trojan's points allowed per game is almost even with the amount of points Notre Dame scores per game.
At this point, though, stats don't matter. Notre Dame has been fighting the "easy schedule" and "not a true top team" critics all season and now they have their stage to prove them all wrong—national television, a fierce rival, a rookie quarterback who has yet to prove himself, a chance at a national title.
This is Brian Kelly and the Irish's chance to shut everyone up and say "we're back."