As the USC Trojans and Notre Dame Fighting Irish set to renew the Greatest Intersectional Rivalry on Saturday we look at the very different paths each team has taken in 2017 to get make this a game between top-15 teams in a College Football Elimination game. The Trojans continue to find ways to overcome their shortcomings for a 6-1 record against a schedule loaded with top 40 teams. The Irish have lost close to a top 5 team and blown out some of the absolute worst teams in the nation. Notre Dame is far healthier, USC has been hammered with numerous, constant, and significant injuries.
The Irish schedule has been easy but it is about to get significantly more difficult:
Notre Dame has for the most part faced an incredibly soft schedule in the first half of the season. Georgia of course is an elite program and Michigan State is also ranked after a disastrous 2016 season of their own. Outside of those two the Irish have run up the score on some of the worst teams in the nation. Beating Miami of Ohio 52-17 at home is fine but it is not much of test for the Irish nor is it terribly indicative of how good Notre Dame actually is.
The Irish beat the 3-4 Temple Owls by 33 points. The Owls are number 100 in the S&P+ rankings. Notre Dame also beat Boston College (104th in S&P+), the Miami Redhawks 79th in S&P+), and the 1-6 North Carolina Tarheels (88th in S&P+), who have only managed to beat Old Dominion this season. The margin of victory in those games was quite large to be fair but four of Notre Dame’s five wins came against teams with losing records. Those same four teams have played a combined 28 games and collectively have won only 9 of them.
The two quality opponents Notre Dame has played had mixed results. A narrow defeat to the 3rd ranked Georgia Bulldogs is a quality loss to be sure but some some of this can be attributed to the Bulldogs losing their starting QB Jacob Eason the week prior forcing them to go into a primetime game at Notre Dame Stadium with a Freshman QB who had spent all of about 6 days in his college career preparing to be the starting QB for Georgia. The Bulldogs offense is running much smoother now. Still, Notre Dame is one score away from being undefeated and probably being ranked just outside the top 5 in the nation.
Likewise going on the road to beat a ranked Michigan State team is a quality win even if it is their only win against an opponent with a winning record this season. The Spartans, however, had three turnovers in that game all in the first half that gave Notre Dame 21 points. You simply cannot spot an elite running team like Notre Dame 3 touchdowns in the first half. They will sit on the ball and grind down both the opponent and the clock. Take away those turnovers, however, and it is possible, maybe even likely, that we are talking about how a 4-2 Notre Dame team lost yet another close game in the fourth quarter and have only managed to beat teams in the lowest quarter of the rankings.
Notre Dame has a much more brutal second half to the schedule starting Saturday with USC. This is likely why there is so much tempered optimism about Notre Dame right now. They are exponentially better than last season, they are dominating the line of scrimmage and they have a world of potential to be a nationally elite program if they can improve in the passing game on both sides of the ball. They fact that they have not performed well in the minimal opportunities against quality teams leaves plenty of question marks.
The Trojans are far more battle tested:
USC on the other hand has played a much more difficult schedule. Five of their opponents have winning records, Texas is sitting right at 3-3 and Oregon State is the only objectively bad team they have faced. Four of the Trojans’ opponents are ranked in the S&P+ top 40 along with Western Michigan at 64th. Cal sits at 87 and the poor Beavers are 117.
Whether you want to use S&P+, ESPN FPI, USA Today’s Sagarin rankings, Team Rankings, or many others, The Trojans have faced a far more difficult path to 6-1 than Notre Dame has faced to get to 5-1.
Not showing up in any rankings is that USC’s toughest opponent is themselves. While the Trojans have found ways to win against one of the toughest schedules in the nation thus far, their self inflicted shortcomings (almost exclusively on offense) are largely the only thing that made those games close in the first place. The margin between the practically unstoppable offense we saw in the final half of the Utah game, and the sputtering USC offense against Texas, Cal, and Washington State is actually quite small. It is tough to predict which Trojans offense you will get on any given drive.
Notre Dame’s record is almost exactly where it should be relative to their schedule strength and margin of victory. USC is under performing in both of those. We can say with confidence that Notre Dame is several touchdowns better than some of the worst teams in the country. USC on the other hand can go as far as their discipline and consistency takes them. Which USC offense we see on Saturday will go a long way toward determining the winner.
The Trojans meanwhile have plenty of reasons to feel confident in their ability to pull off a win in a tight game late in the fourth. Notre Dame on the other hand has plenty of reasons to feel the exact opposite way.
A Snapshot of where USC and Notre Dame are at right now headed into Saturday’s game:
Notre Dame has far more going for them right now than the Trojans do, however. Besides having home field advantage the Irish are coming off a bye week that afforded them plenty of opportunities to rest up and heal from injuries. Starting QB Brandon Wimbush will be healthy for the USC game and many of their minor injuries that are not keeping players out of the game will have a chance to improve. The Injury list for Notre Dame is very short and a week off erases plenty of fatigue.
On the calendar, college football seasons are quite short, but physically, mentally, and emotionally they are brutally long and erratic. That is precisely the kind of thing that can take a toll on college kids. Notre Dame has played a soft schedule and comfortable wins also limits the possibility of mental and emotional fatigue. They have not had to dig deep to find a way to win late except for the Georgia game when they failed to do so. They are not coming off a hard fought emotional win nor have they been living on the edge every week. There has not been much drama or strain, they just take a world class rushing offense and bulldoze some really bad teams every week.
The extra week off also provides the coaching staff more time to come up with a gameplan to beat USC and find ways to correct or compensate for their primary weaknesses in both the passing offense and the passing defense. Irish Head Coach Brian Kelly has a career record of 19-2 in games after a bye week, 8-1 with Notre Dame. That stat could be just randomness and it does not guarantee an Notre Dame victory, but it does suggest that Kelly knows how to make the absolute most of a week off.
The Irish are healthy, well rested, well prepared, and about as well positioned to win on Saturday as they possibly could hope to be.
USC is enters the 2017 Notre Dame under much different circumstances:
Battle-tested the Trojans may be, but it has come at a high cost. USC has played 7 straight games with the closest thing resembling any sort of a break or lull coming in the fourth quarter against Oregon State. The offense’s self inflicted errors have to be frustrating and rattle their confidence. Although self inflicted almost every game they have played this season was very tight, many coming down to the final moments or were far closer than the game should have been. That constant need to dig deep and find ways to win while constantly living on the edge can be awfully taxing mentally and emotionally.
The overall quality opponents has been impressive, but the physicality has been as well. They started off the year against an admittedly lesser opponent but Western Michigan pounded their running backs into the USC defense all game long. Stanford is one of the most physical teams in the nation every year and playing them usually takes a bit out of a team physically. Playing Stanford has frequently caused a hangover for many teams lasting into the next week. Texas is also a big physical team that took it to USC a week later. Two consecutive road games in six days against a better than expected Cal and a top 15 Washington State were not any easier.
Last week a narrow escape at home against Utah may have been the most physically grueling contest yet. Utah the extent to just how physical Utah plays is vastly underappreciated but the Utes, win or lose, will beat you up. Pac-12 coaches have routinely commented on the intense physicality of the Utah football team and how it can routinely cause a palpable negative impact the following week. For what it is worth USC has never lost a game after playing Utah since the Utes joined the Pac-12.
The USC depth chart is approaching crisis levels with the amount of injured Trojans:
Given the brutality of the schedule so far it should not come as much of a surprise that the Trojans have a long list of injuries and a dangerously thin depth chart. The Trojans have dealt with multiple and/or significant injuries all season long at most position groups. Multiple injuries at running back, offensive line, wide receiver, tight end, defensive line and linebackers have plagued USC all season long and continue to do so. The Trojans already have 9 players out for the season including two defensive linemen, three defensive backs, a starter on the offensive line as well as a wide receiver, linebacker, and even a kicker.
For Saturday’s game the Trojans will also be without starters and significant contributors at linebacker, running back, and both the offensive and defensive lines. Still even more starters and significant contributors will play on Saturday but are not 100% and many are being held out of practice this week. Starters and significant contributors including Two offensive lineman, a running back, tight end, defensive lineman and defensive back all have injury situations.
Notre Dame is a juggernaut rushing offense that is tough to stop. USC is missing a huge chunk of their defensive front seven. The Trojans will need to dig deep on defense and find a way to keep Notre Dame from running all over the Trojans and winning big. Notre vs USC may be a game where we can definitively say the injuries cost them a game rather than the mistakes and inconsistencies or poor play calling.
The backstory provides an opportunity for 2017 to be a classic in the rivalry:
It has been a brutal year medically for the Trojans, but they continue to find ways to win and have navigated a tough schedule with half a team to a 6-1 record so far. The Trojans may not be the team we all assumed they would be, at the beginning of the year but they might also be the grittiest and most clutch team in the nation when the game is on the line and clock is winding down. That certainly has to account for something, even if they are maddeningly inconsistent.
The Trojans with a relatively disappointing season thus far take a wounded and weary team using too many reserves and even players off the practice squad, two thirds of the way across the country to take on a healthy and well-rested rival in prime position to to beat them. This may seem pessimistic if you are a Trojan fan, but it is also the sort of thing that makes for great lore in the Nation’s greatest intersectional rivalry if USC wins this game, and they absolutely can win this game.