With BCS hopes and program pride at risk, head coach Brian Kelly and his Notre Dame Fighting Irish have no other option but to win when they take on the USC Trojans on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
USC has won nine of the last 11 meetings between the two teams—including five straight at South Bend—but with an interim head coach, a lousy offense and a defense that’s beginning to crumble, this Trojans squad is as beatable as ever.
To put it simply: There’s absolutely no excuse for Notre Dame not to win on Saturday.
Through six games, the Irish’s season has been anything but ideal.
They’re 4-2, lost starting quarterback Everett Golson to suspension during the offseason and have been brought down by a defense that was supposed to be the team’s strength. After all, Notre Dame did return seven starters—four of whom were considered All-American candidates—from that side of the ball.
Instead, the season fittingly comes down to the annual rivalry with USC.
To BCS or Not to BCS
The Irish must run the table to keep their slim BCS hopes alive. But even that may not be enough to get the team in.
Recent losses by the two teams that beat Notre Dame—Oklahoma and Michigan—only made things worse.
As B/R’s BCS guru Samuel Chi explains:
Those losses hurt Notre Dame in two ways: They affect the Irish's strength of schedule component in the BCS computer rankings and they also serve to keep them down in the polls as the voters are now less willing to "credit" the Irish for those losses.
It makes sense.
By losing to Texas and Penn State, respectively, the Sooners and Wolverines were just exposed by two teams they should have beaten handily. Taking that into account, what does that say about the Irish?
Whether it may be fair or not, that’s a question that’s likely to be running through the pollsters’ minds as the season goes on.
It certainly doesn’t help that Notre Dame comes in at No. 31 in Chi’s latest simulated BCS Standings. The team must reach the Top 14 to qualify for a BCS bowl.
The only thing the Irish can do now to help their cause is win. Not only that, but the team must also win convincingly.
That starts against the Trojans this weekend.
A Loss Is Inexcusable
Back in 2010, Kelly—then in his first year as head coach—went into the Coliseum and knocked off USC 20-16 in the final game of the year.
The victory was huge for Notre Dame. Not only did it improve the team to 7-5, securing a winning season, but it also snapped an eight-game losing streak at the hands of the Trojans.
Now, USC’s interim head coach Ed Orgeron is trying to use this game to accomplish the same thing.
However, it would be an absolute embarrassment for the Irish if he manages to do so.
The Trojans are a lot worse than their 4-2 record suggests. Through six games, the team ranks No. 79 in scoring (28.0 PPG), No. 69 in total offense (408.0 YPG), No. 87 in passing (207.7 YPG) and No. 39 in rushing (200.3 YPG).
Led by quarterback Cody Kessler (60.4 CMP%, 1,129 YD, 8 TD, 4 INT), the USC offense shouldn’t be expected to intimidate anyone—the sophomore has recorded a RAQ QBR under 50 in four of six games.
Defensively, it’s just as bad.
After allowing 14 points or less in each of their first four contests, the Trojans have been absolutely scorched over the last two games. That includes giving up 612 yards and 62 points in a loss to Arizona State and 508 yards and 31 points in a victory over Arizona.
Not to mention, the USC secondary made Wildcats quarterback B.J. Denker—only two touchdowns in four games prior—look like Peyton Manning (28-of-44, 363 YD, 4 TD, 0 INT).
With an interim head coach, a subpar quarterback and lack of scholarships due to NCAA violations, the Trojans’ football program is an absolute mess.
If Notre Dame loses to that, its football program may also be looking at a downward spiral of that sorts.
Summing It All Up
The Irish’s season is still alive and well—for now.
If the team wants to keep it that way, there’s no other solution than to beat USC. A loss eliminates all BCS hopes and sets Notre Dame up for even more defeats.
Don’t forget, the team still has three road games remaining on the schedule. That includes the season finale against No. 13 Stanford.
On the heels of an impressive 37-34 victory over the Sun Devils, Kelly and the Irish are on a high.
Now, the team has a perfect opportunity to take down a rival and gain some real momentum heading into the final five games on the schedule.
In a season full of disappointments, can Notre Dame finally step up?
All stats and rankings used in this article are courtesy of NCAA.com.