The 2013 matchup between the USC Trojans and Notre Dame Fighting Irish doesn't carry the national championship connotations of some of their matchups from years past, but Saturday's game at Notre Dame Stadium is far from meaningless.
In fact, it could help shape both teams' trajectories henceforth.
USC's season has, of course, already been rife with controversy and disappointment. The school fired head coach Lane Kiffin after a 3-2 start, a move that came with a ton of schadenfreude from media types but also masked the program's festering desperation.
Ed Orgeron, who seemingly has the undying support of the locker room, took over and led the Trojans to a huge home win over Arizona last week. The team looked far better and far more motivated than at any point under Kiffin.
But the reality of the situation is that Orgeron is very likely a lame duck while Pat Haden goes out for his latest big splash. It would take a monumental shift over the rest of the season for Haden to not look elsewhere with his next hire. A win against Notre Dame alone wouldn't do the trick, but it could be a start.
Brian Kelly faces no similar job-related worries. He'll be back next season without a question. But his team is currently teetering the line between potential January bowl game and post-national championship game disappointment.
The golden-domed faithful were satisfied with Kelly leading the Irish to back-to-back 8-5 seasons as he tried to lift the program out of the Charlie Weis-sized rubble.
Yet 2012's undefeated campaign was supposed to represent a long-term rejuvenation of the program—only the follow-up hasn't been quite there. The Irish are 4-2 heading into Saturday, losing two of their three games against ranked opponents by double digits.
And yet, the last time we saw Notre Dame it was stopping Taylor Kelly and Arizona State's vaunted offense en route to a possible season-saving triumph. With only one more game against a ranked opponent the rest of the way, the Irish could nestle their way into January bowl contention.
We'll get a good idea of whether they will against USC. With that in mind, let's check in on the biggest storyline and give a prediction for how Saturday's action will play out.
When: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.
Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra
Spread: Notre Dame -3 (Vegas Insider)
Notre Dame Defense vs. USC Offense: Which Underperforming Unit Comes Out Ahead?
Those bemoaning the slow(ish) start for the Irish have understandably spent much of their time focusing on the offense. Tommy Rees has proved both improved and wholly inconsistent, with the team's running game not doing much to help matters. It seems every week one of the top trio steps up, but it's been a schizophrenic attack for much of the season.
But Notre Dame survived in 2012 despite a middle-of-the-pack offense.
The problem for the Irish has been their defense has regressed from last season's stellar unit. They have given up 25.5 points per game through the first half of their season, which is right around 2.5 times more than their average in 2012. They're appreciably worse against the run and pass from both a yardage and a metric standpoint.
A season after finishing with the 16th-best defensive FEI ranking (per Football Outsiders)—and that's after the drubbing by Alabama—Notre Dame is currently sitting 55th. And remember, those rankings adjust for opponent, situation, etc. It's not hard to spot the areas where the Irish struggle.
Defensive tackle Louis Nix has been sensational, but the remainder of the defensive line has battled injuries and ineffectiveness. Star defensive end Stephon Tuitt's slow return to form after an offseason sports hernia surgery has been particularly troublesome. There have also been lapses in tackling from the linebacking corps and preventable mental mistakes that have resulted in plays down the field.
The Irish defense can be properly juxtaposed by the USC offense. Riddled with injuries and questionable depth—the remnants of the Pete Carroll era are loudest when looking at the Trojans' reduced scholarships—the Trojans are 78th in the nation, scoring only 28 points per game.
Marqise Lee's status is up in the air for Saturday as he battles a knee injury. Expected starting running back Silas Redd only made his season debut last week due to his own knee issues, and then the Trojans watched on as his replacement, sophomore Tre Madden, suffered a hamstring injury last week.
With Cody Kessler matching Rees every step of the way on the inconsistency scale, it's unclear when or where USC will get its scoring from—or whether it will come at all.
Watching the Trojans score seven points against Washington State is still one of the three or four strangest things I've seen all season. Watching them score 17 against Utah State isn't that far behind.
It's an interesting matchup because neither team lacks the talent to be successful. Tuitt and Nix were just as integral to the Irish defensive success last season as Manti Te'o, and there are still components remaining from a Trojans offense that was pretty good for a lot of last season.
No matter the measuring device, these are two awfully even teams. They're talented, not loaded. They're flawed, but not terrible. Notre Dame and USC are two squads destined to finish somewhere in that mushy middle of the FBS hierarchy, where their bowl invites largely depend upon one or possibly even two swing games.
The Irish have an easier trek going forward, which arguably makes this game more important in Southern California. But, frankly, I just trust the Notre Dame defense far more with an extra week's rest to right the ship than a USC offense decimated by injury.
If we could enter a cheat code and everyone was magically healthy for Saturday, then perhaps going with the road team would be a consideration. Lee would likely have a field day with this Notre Dame secondary, and the combo meal of Redd and Madden is good enough to run through a fusillade of arm tackles.
But Lee is hurt, Redd and Madden are in recovery mode and Kessler looks a year or two away from realizing his promise. The Irish have smart, veteran defenders who know their assignments and get the opportunity to play at home.
Notre Dame wins easily in a game that might surprise some folks.
Score: Notre Dame 27, USC 17
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