Much of the season for both USC and Notre Dame is riding on winning this game:
Well, beyond the necessity of beating their rival of course. Both teams come into this game with one loss. There is little to no margin of error for either team the rest of the season as a second loss at any point almost certainly eliminates them from playoff contention. The Trojans would obviously still be fine in the Pac-12 Conference title race with a loss on Saturday but the expectations for this season were higher. It would be frustrating if the Irish were the team to slam the door shut on USC, particularly if it served as the launching point for a serious playoff push of their own.
For USC this is also an opportunity to begin flipping the perception that they are an overrated disappointment. For Notre Dame it is an opportunity to return to the national conversation and possibly set the stage for a legitimate playoff run as well.
We are a long, long way from preseason expectations:
About two months ago before the 2017 college football season kicked off the Trojans were a popular pick for the College Football Playoff and Sam Darnold was the early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy after their red hot performance in 2016. Any major red flags were either severely downplayed or outright ignored.
Notre Dame on the other hand was coming off a disastrous 2016 season decimated by a toxic combination of bad luck, bad decisions, and bad execution. The Irish were an awful 4-8 that year, certainly they had to be at least a little better if for no other reason than it seemed like it could not get worse. Still, they basically replaced everyone on the coaching staff (17 new coaches in all) including a new offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams coach, and strength and conditioning coach. They also had a new starting QB. With a first half schedule that featured Georgia, Michigan State, North Carolina (back when we thought they were still good) and frequent thorn in their side rival Boston College, a 5-1 start after a 4-8 season seemed unlikely.
National Perceptions headed into this game:
The Trojans have vastly underperformed and underwhelmed in 2017 particularly compared to their expectations. Despite not looking much like a national contender, they have overcome their largely self-inflicted shortcomings and consistently found ways to win games. The Trojans have managed a 6-1 record, though there is a sense that may not be as good as their record indicate. In fairness they are a disturbingly small number of plays away from being 4-3. If USC can win this without a massive list of blunders they could in theory begin to reset that narrative.
Are the 2017 Irish a real contender?
The 5-1 Irish on the other hand are a bit more of a mystery. Notre Dame has clearly improved from last season and there are plenty of reasons for optimism. The generally weak schedule so far this season with a loaded back half and the abysmal lack of production when throwing ball also introduce plenty of reasons for caution. So while many members of the media want to get the Notre Dame hype playoff hype going they want to wait and see if they can knock off the Trojans first.
A major turning point in the season
With question marks for both squads as well as Notre Dame’s strength of schedule about to get substantially more difficult while the Trojans’ is about to ease up a bit it seems likely that for one or both of these teams Saturday will be a major turning point in the season. A loss for USC means they will have to forget about the failure to meet their preseason playoff expectations and focus on beating their four remaining regular opponents all of whom are beatable. A win for the Trojans and they are in prime position to head into the Pac-12 Championship game with only 1 loss.
Notre Dame on the other hand could use the momentum and confidence that comes from beating not just a rivalry but one of the top ten teams in the nation headed into a difficult second half of the schedule. A loss on the other hand could cause the young Irish team to lose confidence and spiral out of control if one loss to USC hangs over and turns into more loses. 2014 is an example of this when a 6-0 Irish team lost to Florida State and then lost 4 of their final 5 games in an epic collapse.