To say the 2010 season has been a challenging one for Notre Dame would be a gross understatement. This Saturday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly and his team have the chance to put much of that behind them in their annual showdown with arch-rival Southern Cal.
The Trojans are the collective demon that, over the past eight seasons, the Irish have been unable to exorcise. Rather, Notre Dame has often been an exclamation point on each of those seasons for Southern Cal.
Now, the Irish finally are building momentum following two convincing wins over Utah and Army, and a real opportunity has emerged for the men from South Bend to at last turn the tables.
For this particular game, there is such a sense of urgency among Irish fans because Southern Cal represents all of Notre Dame's failings of the past decade and a half. Aside from the off-the-field scandals, the Trojan performance on the field has been everything the Irish desire to be, a dominant, take-on-all-comers football team.
Over the last eight years the Southern Cal game has been the magnifying glass that exaggerated all of Notre Dame's shortcomings. Rivalry games are supposed to be well-played, epic contests, but five of the losses during the losing streak have been by more than 31 points. In only two of the games has Notre Dame even sniffed a chance at victory.
The Irish have gone through two coaches (three with George O'Leary) who were unsuccessful in tripping up the Trojans. Charlie Weis, as successful as he was in his first two years, is now best remembered by a coaching performance in a loss, the "Bush Push" game of 2005.
All of this has left Notre Dame huddled in the fetal position trying to squeeze out any small solace it can, such as that the wins were not legitimate because of the Reggie Bush recruiting violations or that Notre Dame still holds the series' longest winning streak at 11 games (1983-1993). But in the end, all those justifications ring hollow.
This is why there is much at stake in the Coliseum this Saturday. Not only is it an opportunity to reassert Notre Dame's place in one of college football's best rivalries, but it would be a tremendous boost to momentum heading into a bowl game and the 2011 season.
It would be a win to which Brian Kelly could point to for recruits and confidently say that the Irish have left the days of losing football for good.
There will also be plenty of individual sub-plots in this game. This will be the first time that Notre Dame star receiver Michael Floyd will play against Southern Cal, having been injured each of the last two seasons.
Irish linebacker Manti Te'o shocked the college football recruiting world when he signed with Notre Dame over Southern Cal and will be looking for payback after the crushing loss in 2009.
Projected Trojan quarterback Mitch Mustain, no stranger to recruiting drama, has been waiting for his chance to shine for years, and he won't get a bigger stage than this game.
Of all people, Kelly knows most what is at stake in this game. After all the criticism he has endured this season, the opportunity to restore confidence in the future of Irish football is there if he can find a way to conquer Troy.