The rivalry between Notre Dame and USC truly is a rivalry like no other. It was born out of an effort by both schools to expand their fledgling football programs’ national profile by finding a national rival. The Trojans and Irish couldn’t have found better rivals. In the 88 years since the two teams first faced off, SC and ND have each won 11 national championships, and possibly could have won more had they not spoiled each other’s contender hopes in this rivalry series. It is by far the most decorated rivalry in college football…but you’d never know it just by looking at this year’s matchup.
As we approach the final week of the regular season, the Trojans and Irish are both afterthoughts. For the first time since 2000, this matchup will have a midday kickoff. Neither team will be competing for a playoff spot. Instead, both will be trying to prevent their seasons from collapsing into complete failures. At the center of it are two coaches: one who has seen better days, the other has yet to see a better day.
“USC and ND have taken very different paths to end up in the same spot. While ND’s decline was sudden and shocking, the Trojans’ decline has been slow and excruciating.”
It’s been only two years since Brian Kelly led Notre Dame to a 12-win season and a spot in the national championship game, and just a few weeks ago, it looked like the Irish could be back in the driver’s seat. Even a close loss to Florida State wouldn’t have knocked them out, as they were a debatable P.I. call away from scoring the game-winning touchdown.
But the Irish luck ran out and ND’s season has gone straight off a cliff. For only the second time in the history of the rivalry, ND comes into the match against USC with a three-game losing streak. Everett Golson has devolved from Heisman dark horse to turnover machine. The defense has been crippled by academic fraud suspensions and injuries, including the loss of two starting defensive linemen during last week’s loss to Louisville. This attrition has led to Notre Dame giving up 30 points or more during their 2-4 skid in the last six games.
The tailspin has led to some uncertainty surrounding Kelly’s job status in 2015. Could he leave for Florida or the NFL? Should he be placed on the hot seat if he doesn’t beat the Trojans? Has he taken the Irish as far as possible, or can his underclassmen mature into a fighting force that can make the Irish’s success in 2012 more than a mere blip amongst years of eight-win doldrums? A win over USC would help give both the team and fans some confidence heading into their bowl game and next season. A loss could be the beginning of an even larger slide for the Kelly Regime.
In the other corner is Steve Sarkisian. Frequent readers of this blog don’t need a rehash of how his first year has gone. It is funny, though, how USC and ND have taken very different paths to end up in the same spot. While ND’s decline was sudden and shocking, the Trojans’ decline has been slow and excruciating, filled with last-drive choke losses and total annihilation at the hands of hated rivals.
Nov 13, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California coach Steve Sarkisian gestures in the second quarter against the California Golden Bears at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
But Sark’s position is very different from Kelly’s. The murmurs surrounding Kelly are natural for a coach that has two straight mediocre seasons after several years at a program. But any negative vibes held by the Irish faithful towards Kelly are tempered by the fact that he has proven his worth since taking the job, so you probably won’t see many fans calling for his head. Sark, on the other hand, is protected by his status as a first-year coach, but enters this week surrounded by a very angry fanbase.
Between embarrassing scandals, crippling sanctions, and the tease of a faster return to prominence during Ed Orgeron’s interim run, SC fans are not in the mood for being patient. So far, Sark has been everything his doubters say he is. He has failed every expectation set by the usual demands of USC fans and by the “Win Now” mentality he promised the team would bring at the start of the season. If he doesn’t beat Notre Dame and win the bowl game, he will hold on to his status as the only Pac-12 coach to have never coached a team to a 9-win season. Lose both games, and the label of “Seven-Win Sark” will get even bigger.
In addition, a defeat to Notre Dame will just further accentuate the fact that the sanctions are having their intended effect. Before 2012, USC had gone 17 years without losing to both UCLA and Notre Dame in the same season. Now they risk such a thing happening in three consecutive seasons, something that hasn’t happened since the years of Larry Smith and John Robinson’s second run in the early 90s. Given that Ed Orgeron was dismissed primarily because of his failure to win those two crucial games, fans will definitely be unhappy if Sark ends up doing the same. He will have the chance to implement his coaching style with more scholarship players and physical practices next year, but its very unlikely that many fans will have confidence that Sark is the one to lead them back to the promised land if he can’t end this season on a somewhat positive note.
So here is where the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football stands: four losses versus four losses. Sanctions versus suspensions. Players getting paid by agents versus academic fraud. Fake drowning nephews versus fake dead girlfriends. And for Steve Sarkisian and Brian Kelly, there’s not much to win aside from the Jeweled Shillelagh, but there is so much more to lose.